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Ag Pesticides - Good for Crops; Dangerous for Farmworkers

Ag Pesticides - Good for Crops; Dangerous for Farmworkers

Picture of Sergio Flores

When I walked into the classroom, I knew I was in the right place. There were about 25 students learning English as they do every evening in a tucked away office in Gridley, California. The town is a rural community surrounded by agriculture, the students are farm workers trying to learn the skills that perhaps will take them out of the fields. The instructor allowed me to address the class.

“Who here has had a bad experience with pesticides,” I asked. Everyone’s hand went up in response.

As I looked around, I noticed several old faces so I decided to rephrase my inquiry.

“Who here has had a bad experience with pesticides in the last three years,” I asked again. Some 20 hands went back up.  In that moment, I knew these workers were not adequately protected.

Some described the exposure as a burning sensation in the skin and eyes. “I couldn’t drive home because my eyes were so irritated,” explained a farmworker who added that at night he couldn’t sleep because the itch was unbearable.

Another worker was more graphic. “At first my nose started running when I started my shift and eventually my nose started dripping blood.”

It just didn’t make sense to me. California has the strictest pesticide regulations in the United States and quite possibly the world. So then why are there so many hands up in the classroom?

As luck would have it, a pesticide applicator was also learning English that evening. He hesitantly explained how growers many times do not abide by the wait periods required after a pesticide is applied in an agricultural field. Some pesticides require a two-day stay, others up to two weeks, before workers are allowed to return to work, but each day without production is money lost for the grower.

“Many times our supervisor will tell us that it’s not a big deal, that it was only minor amounts of pesticide that was applied,” said one man who had worked in agriculture for some 25 years. “Other times they tell us to just stay home since they have other people willing to do the work,” he explained adding that the insinuation was that he would lose his job if he didn’t show up to work.

The following day my cameraman and I went to a Live Oak, Ca., a little town near Gridley. It too is surrounded by agriculture. As we were getting footage of a pesticide applicator in an orchard, we heard a loud buzz. “That’s a school bell,” I exclaimed. We followed the sound and sure enough, on the other side of the orchard, some two blocks away, there were children finishing up their school day.

Pesticide Drift is another issue that many who live near agriculture are far too familiar with.  This day there was no wind, but many parents I talked to told me that they have picked up the smell of pesticide many times as they picked up their kids from school.

A farmer applying pesticide that day told me that it is next to impossible to abide by all the regulations California imposes on them when they use pesticides. He told me he tries hard to abide by all the rules to protect his crews by not allowing them to work when there is a risk to their health. Pesticide drift is another issue. “These towns are growing, I used to have ample buffer zones but they keep getting closer and closer to my property,” he explains. He adds that there are regulations that govern under what weather conditions he is allowed to apply pesticides but many times a sudden burst of wind could cause a drift into nearby neighborhoods, parks, and schools.

To this farmer, pesticides are necessary to sustain his crops and his livelihood. At a grander scale, they protect the multi-billion-dollar industry that is California's agriculture.

So it is this vitality of the state that the Department of Pesticide Regulations needs to consider when enacting or enforcing pesticide regulations.

Pesticide Watch is an organization that is critical of pesticide use in California. They hope that DPR’s funding (75% from pesticide sales) does not cloud their judgment. They add that DPR also relies too much on the “science” provided by pesticide manufacturers.

Hogwash responds the new director of DPR who accuses Pesticide Watch of living in a “dream world” where agriculture is free from pesticide. They affirm that their stakeholders are ALL Californians including farmworkers and rural residents. They boast a 95% compliance rate in the last five years by growers when it comes to abiding by pesticide rules. These are done through inspections as determined by the Ag Commissioner of each county.

So then why did so many hands go up? In short, there is simply just too much agriculture for inspectors to handle.

After watching my report, a spokesperson from DPR called me and said he realized they needed to to do a better job communicating with workers and their supervisors. They are now contemplating a new campaign that would strengthen their efforts to empower farmworkers so that they are aware of their rights when working with pesticides. They also want to inform them of the resources available to them should they be exposed to these toxic substances.

They want to "weed-out" those growers that do not abide by the rules.

Here are my stories (remember they are in Spanish)

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