Sunday, February 27, 2005

Farm Workers: Protect against pesticides


Farm workers here receive too much exposure to some of the most dangerous pesticides. Washington state must sharpen its efforts to protect the health of the workers, their families and neighbors, who can be exposed to the pesticides by clothing or drifting spray.

After a year of a state study of workers who handle certain pesticides, it's clear that the farm workers' longstanding effort to begin health monitoring was fully justified. Tests showed about 20 percent of the workers suffered a drop of one-fifth or more in an enzyme, cholinesterase, that is essential to the human nervous system. In 4 percent of the workers, the enzyme levels had declined by 30 percent or more, which caused them to leave their jobs.

It's no real surprise there's evidence of exposure. The organophosphates in some pesticides heavily used on fruit trees in Washington are poisonous to the nervous system, potentially causing blurred vision, flu-like symptoms, seizures or even death among workers. California had been doing similar testing for decades, helping to improve application practices. California also monitors air conditions for some pesticides, a good step toward protecting those who live, work and go to school around sprayed fields.

Washington farm workers won a testing program only after years of pushing regulatory agencies, breaking up misguided legislative end runs and a 2002 decision by the Washington Supreme Court. The testing program was started a year ago under a rule adopted by the state Department of Labor and Industries after the court ruling.

The first-year monitoring results point to the need for further controls at the state and federal levels and to reduce or phase out the use of some pesticides. Gov. Christine Gregoire should correct the overly relaxed attitude of state government under her predecessor. It's important to remember, after all, that risk levels that would never be tolerated in industrial settings nationally often have been deemed a necessary part of business in U.S. agriculture.

Farmers' groups criticize the state's study, pointing to slow handling of test samples. And they say there have been few or no cases of illness definitively documented by the state Department of Health in recent years, although farm worker supporters make a good case that illnesses have been undercounted because of inadequate support for investigations. The best response is a tougher testing program.

State officials are reluctant to look at stronger worker--protection regulations based on just one year of testing. Given the state's approach to starting testing, that sounds excessively cautious. Fortunately, Rep. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, is trying to push the state forward.

Conway has proposed House Bill 1863 to require improved systems for worker safety for highly toxic pesticides and begin to phase out their uses. Farmers and workers' representatives debate whether adequate alternatives to current pesticides exist to allow a phase-out. But the state's direction ought to be clearly toward greater protection of the workers.