Pesticides Sicken Farmworkers

A study released Wednesday by environmental and labor advocates shows farmworkers exposed to pesticides suffer from a variety of health problems. The researchers found most workers receive little, if any, medical treatment when they are overexposed.

About 665 workers are poisoned each year in California's lush fields and orchards, according to the study.

Farmworker Isabel Rendon collapsed, dizzy and throwing up, in a strawberry field last year after pesticides drifted from a neighboring apple orchard.

But she also said she lives almost constantly with rashes on her hands and blisters on her arms, caused by constant exposure to toxic chemicals.

"I'm proud to be a farmworker, but I do not believe I need to be poisoned at work in order to make a living," Rendon said Wednesday.

Rendon and ten co-workers poisoned last year were taken by a field supervisor to a local clinic where they were given water and Tylenol. Most doctors said they would recommend rest, monitoring and prescription antidotes.

"Medical treatment is very limited. I see birth impairments, neurological problems, rashes, blisters, cancer, and the life expectancy for farmworkers in this country is 49," said Dr. Roberto Letimendi, who works at a health clinic in Watsonville. "I believe this is in direct relation to the chronic exposure by these farmworkers to pesticides."

Letimendi said the new study should be used to leverage funding for additional studies about the medical problems caused by pesticide exposure among California's 600,000 farmworkers.

The study analyzed 3,991 cases of occupational poisonings by agricultural pesticides between 1991 and 1996. Grapes, cotton and broccoli were the crops accounting for the most poisoning cases, according to the study.

Penalties for those poisonings were rare, the study found. During 1996 and 1997, more than 85 percent of the documented pesticide safety violations statewide carried no fines at all.

"Enforcement of California pesticide safety laws is clearly lacking," said Anne Katten of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. "Issuing warnings instead of fines for pesticide regulations is like the California Highway Patrol handing out 'please drive safely' letters to reckless drivers."

California Department of Pesticide Regulation spokeswoman Veda Federighi said the study and its sponsors the United Farm Workers, Pesticide Action Network, Californians for Pesticide Reform and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation overstated the problem.

"I don't think the situation is as dire as they want to paint it," she said. "But we certainly are working to improve."

Bob Krauter a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation said the study is unfair because it focuses on selective data between 1991 and 1996.

"Farmers have a great regard for the health and safety of their workers," he said. Krauter added that California has the tougest pesticide regulations in the country.

But Kate Hallward of United Farm Workers said those regulations don't mean much if most violators aren't penalized.

"Clearly not enough is being done," she said.

The study's sponsors are recommending that state officials rapidly phase out the use of the most toxic pesticides and promote healthy and sustainable alternatives. In addition, they are calling for a ban on aerial spraying of pesticides and expanded buffer zones around recently treated areas.