Farmworker group educates workers about dangers of pesticides

February 9, 2004


Three identical and unlabeled plastic bottles containing a red liquid sit on a table.


Two of them are fruit drinks.


The third is poison.


Which one will Immokalee farmworker Hermilo Ivan Cortes dare to drink out of?


Participating in scenarios like those, a group of 15 Immokalee field workers recently learned the

nuts and bolts of the dangers of pesticides often sprayed in the vegetable and fruit

fields to kill the insects that cling to the produce.


Leaders from the Immokalee office of the Farmworker Association of Florida didn't bother to show

workers an explanatory video on the subject or lecture them about the risks of pesticides and

precautions to take.


Instead, they focused an creating an interactive educational session that involved mock scenarios workers

are faced with in the fields and deciding how and when to seek first aid or in some cases immediate help

when someone's life is in danger.


Without a label, sticker or name on any of the three bottles, a farmworker could easily drink

the poison and not even know it.


"You have to be careful of what you drink because you could die," said Mateo Hernandez, a class

participant, who works as a tomato picker.


Hernandez has labored in the fields for the past two years since he arrived from his native Mexico,

he said, and has been exposed to pesticides.

"These are dangerous chemicals that hurt our eyes and make us sneeze a lot," said Hernandez, 41.

"I couldn't go to work recently for a whole month because I was coughing so much and even got a fever."


Among the staged scenarios during the educational workshop, farmworkers were asked to labor in the

fields while their supervisor sprayed pesticides on the crops. The supervisor then ordered the employee 

to stay put and continue working even after the substance had splashed the worker's arm.


In this case, the spray was actually a can of air freshener. Had it been the real thing, the worker's health

could have been at risk, said Victor Grimaldo, an organizer with the Immokalee office of the

Farmworker Association.


"Pesticides can enter your body through your pores and go through your brain, eventually destroying

your liver and stomach," he told the class. "It can reach the bloodstream and damage your organs.

You can get asthma and not be able to breathe."


When Hernandez doesn't use gloves to pick tomatoes, his hands and fingernails are left with a

black film or layer that is usually tough to remove with soap and water.


"It takes 10 days or even two weeks before that comes off," he said. "You have to keep washing and

washing your hands or you can always use bleach, but that can cause discoloration on your skin."


Francisco Javier Garza is a certified trainer in pesticides with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


Garza, an organizer with the Homestead branch of the Farmworker Association in rural Miami-Dade County,

cautioned farmworkers about the constant dangers they're subjected to while working in the fields.


"The first big mistake that any worker can make is for he or she to believe what other people tell him or

her," he said. "Workers are often misled and they have a tendency to listen to a crew leader or a supervisor.

When they get sick, they don't ever think it's got anything to do with the pesticides. They blame their

illness on something else."


The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires growers to educate farmworkers about pesticides. To comply,

some corporations show workers a short video on the dangers of pesticides and sometimes it's narrated

in English, so workers can't understand, Grimaldo said.


"Watching a video about safety isn't enough and to top it off, the video isn't even in Spanish," he said.

"Who's going to understand that?"


Workers such as Juan Gabriel, a tractor driver for Gargiulo Farms, said he's constantly exposed to

pesticides, a potentially deadly chemical.


"You always have the fear that the chemical is going to get on your face," he said.

But pesticides don't just has a short-term effect on a person's health. Some of the long-term health problems

associated with pesticide-spraying include memory loss, cancer and even death, Garza said.

"Sometimes we blame the symptoms on other stuff," he told the attentive group of farmworkers. "Even 15 years

down the road, the symptoms are there or surface. Our brain starts to get damaged."


Some of the precautions workers can take on days where pesticides have been sprayed in the fields include:

change clothes, take a thorough shower, and visit your doctor if you feel you've been exposed to the chemical

or are having a reaction.


"If you're splashed by this, you need to see a doctor right away whether you have symptoms or not,"

Garza warned. "You can avoid the contamination of pesticides by washing your hands before you eat

and by not eating in the fields."


After the workshop's completion, the Farmworker Association awarded the 15 participating workers individualized

worker verification ID cards from the EPA to show they've undergone training.