Risks to Farm Workers Highlighted

Lolita Echeverria coordinates the Central Coast Environmental Health Project for the Ventura office of the Environmental Defense Center

Agricultural work continues to be one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States, according to a report released by the United Farm Workers union, Pesticide Action Network and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. Titled "Fields of Poison: California Farmworkers and Pesticides," it documents the fact that farm workers are the population most exposed to pesticides, resulting in 3,991 reported poisonings in California between 1991 and 1996. The report highlights the risks involved in agricultural work and makes recommendations to minimize exposures to workers.

It also identifies a link between certain crops and pesticide poisonings. Labor-intensive crops such as strawberries, grapes, broccoli and cut flowers increase the potential for direct contact with pesticides. Compared to mechanized production of field crops such as wheat and soybeans, specialty crops require more labor-intensive field preparation, maintenance and harvesting. This places workers at increased risk.

Further exacerbating the situation are serious problems in California's county-based system for enforcing pesticide laws. Although there are regulations to protect workers, many experts agree that enforcement at the county level is inconsistent throughout the state.

Ventura County is highlighted in the report as having an agricultural commissioner's office under public scrutiny. Over the last several years, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) has documented the following failures of this office:

* Failure to issue fines for serious or repeat violations.

* Failure to conduct enough inspections.

* Failure to complete investigations in a timely manner.

One particularly disturbing incident was described in the report. On Feb. 7, 1996, farm workers harvested strawberries during a "restricted entry interval," the period after pesticide application when activities in the area are restricted. An agricultural commissioner's office inspector noticed this violation and stopped the operation. The next day, an inspector found that the farm operator had sent workers back into the treated field. Although a clear violation of law, no penalty was assessed.

Farm workers are exposed to pesticides throughout the season and are not adequately protected. However, there are solutions. Some recommendations proposed by the authors of "Fields of Poison" would help to reduce the risks.

Topping the list, especially in Ventura County, would be to strengthen enforcement of pesticide safety laws, including setting mandatory minimum penalties for violations. Issuing notices of violation that carry no fine is like handing out "please drive safely" letters to drunk drivers.

Additional recommendations include requiring that every county agricultural commissioner's office have at least one bilingual investigator on staff and prioritizing a rapid phaseout of the most toxic pesticides and replacement with safer alternatives.

The report identifies many areas for improvement that would ensure the health and well-being of the thousands of farm workers whose daily labor provides our very sustenance. When we begin implementing these recommendations, the safety of our farm workers--and of our entire community--will be better ensured.

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