Worker's illness shines light on pesticide use
The Florida Department of Agriculture has fined a large Redland nursery, where a former worker says he was exposed to toxic pesticides.
Mario Chavez's hands tremble as he reaches for his dinner plate. He has
''tubes in his kidneys'' because they can't function on their own. His memory is fuzzy.
Until November 2002, Chavez unloaded plants from a trailer at Costa Nursery Farms
in the Redland -- plants that were destined to adorn living rooms in homes he
could never afford.
Chavez says pesticides from those plants entered his pores, making him vomit every
night for a week, turning his face red and swollen. He had a brain hemorrhage and
spent a month in a coma.
Doctors have not concluded that the pesticides caused the brain hemorrhage,
but they have not ruled it out.
The incident, however, sparked an investigation into the nursery's practices by
the state last year. Six violations were found, and the nursery was also fined.
And cases like Chavez's have drawn the attention of state lawmakers, concerned
that many migrant workers who toil in Florida's fields are unaware of the possible
dangers such work holds.
Several bills currently moving through the Legislature would require farm owners to
tell their workers what pesticides they are using and what the toxic effects could be.
Similar bills died in the Legislature last year.
Chavez has also filed a worker's compensation lawsuit against the nursery
-- he's asking to be paid for lost wages, both past and future, as well as $230,000
in medical bills.
He says he watched as the pine trees were sprayed in the trailer -- and then began
unloading them 30 minutes later, without any protective equipment.
The pesticide-treated trees Chavez handled required a 24-hour waiting period to settle,
state records show.
The State Department of Agriculture fined the company $7,100 in September for violations
like the ones claimed by Chavez.
According to a report issued by the department, inspectors found six violations of
pesticide safety regulations, including improper safety instructions, not providing workers
with protective gear, and allowing workers to handle freshly treated plants.
''The people who ran the company didn't care about the rules, '' Chavez, 52, said in Spanish.
``All they cared about was selling the plants.''
Chavez says he told his supervisors that they were making the workers ''take off plants
that were poisoned,'' but they didn't listen.
The company now denies any responsibility, he said.
Costa Nursery Farms owner Tony Costa declined to comment, but a spokesman
for the Department of Agriculture said the nursery is fighting the claims.
The investigation is pending.
Some say more needs to be done. ''A $7,000 fine is a drop in the bucket to
Costa Nursery,'' said Tania Galloni, an attorney from the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project
of Florida Legal Services, the agency that filed the complaint on Chavez's behalf.
``We would like to see enforcement action reflect the severity of the violations.''
Though the investigation is ongoing, Craig Bryant of the Department of Agriculture's
pesticide compliance section said it's unlikely that the nursery will be found responsible
for Chavez's condition.
''We can't really fine the nursery for injuring an employee,'' Byrant said. ``Some of the
exposure may be implied, but we don't really have a violation that says you exposed this
person to pesticides while working.''
Galloni estimates that half of farmworkers statewide are not trained in proper pesticide
procedure. Only a handful of pesticide exposure cases are reported in Florida each year,
though she speculates those figures are misleading.
DON'T KNOW RIGHTS
Many migrant workers don't know their legal rights, Galloni said, or are afraid of being
deported if they are here illegally and complain.
Chavez came to this country to send money home to his wife and six children in El Salvador,
but he can't do that anymore.
Instead, he now spends his days on the couch in the Homestead home he shares with his sister,
watching TV to pass the time.
''If I came here, it was because I wanted to help my family back home, because I wanted to
give my children a better life,'' Chavez said. ``Do you see what's happened to me? They're
the ones suffering there. I've spent one year and three months without sending them a cent.
I'm not leaving as I came.''