South Florida Sun-Sentinel

May 26, 2004


Pesticide victims get little aid

By Juliana Barbassa
The Associated Press

May 26, 2004

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. Viviana Torres was leading her crew down a row of 100 peach trees when an awful stench started burning her nose. The farmworker, five months pregnant, had been caught in pesticide drift before. She pulled her shirt over her face.

"I was afraid, thinking about the baby," Torres recalled.

Within moments, other workers were fainting, according to Torres. Frantic, Torres tried

to get help via a cell phone. She reached the foreman. He told the workers to leave the field.

They had breathed the fumes for 20 minutes, and 19 people were sick -- gasping for air,

nauseated, their eyesight blurry, some drifting in and out of consciousness, Torres said.

Every year, hundreds of farmworkers and families who live near fields are hurt by pesticides

in California. If the past is any guide, the victims of the May 2 incident in the town of Arvin will

not get much help, farmworker advocates say.

Often, those affected do not get compensation, not even to cover medical expenses,

said Martha Guzman of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

In 2002, the last year for which numbers are available, 172 million pounds of pesticides

were applied to fields across California. The chemicals drifted 39 times and sickened

478 people, according to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.

A bill introduced this spring by state Sen. Dean Florez, the Pesticide Drift Exposure Response Act,

would set up a fund, financed by fines imposed on companies that violate the law, to help

pay for field workers' medical care.

In the case of the Arvin workers, witnesses said they were hit when the wind changed

after a helicopter sprayed a potato field a quarter-mile away.

Unsure what chemical it was dealing with, the fire department decontaminated the workers

by having them take off their clothes and hosing them down.

Rescue workers later learned that Chuck's Choppers, a pest control business, had applied

an insecticide called Monitor 4 to a field owned by Grimmway Enterprises, a major grower,

primarily of carrots.

Monitor is related to nerve gas, said Marion Moses, a doctor who directs the San Francisco

nonprofit Pesticide Education Center. Severe exposure can lead to unconsciousness,

seizures, an inability to breathe and death. But with medical attention, victims can recover

well, Moses said. A one-time exposure probably will not hurt Torres' baby, she said.