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From August 26, 2005

Weak Enforcement Harms California Farm Workers
(Beyond Pesticides, August 26, 2005) Thousands of farm workers experience pesticide-induced illnesses every year in California, and according to an investigation conducted by a central valley newspaper, Stockton Record, inconsistent enforcement of California's pesticide laws is contributing to the problem.

California's agricultural commissioners -- the county officials responsible for protecting farm workers and the public from mishandled pesticides -- often perform perfunctory inspections and fail to levy fines against violators. The Stockton Record's analysis of California's Department of Pesticide Regulation data from 1999-2004 shows many pesticide violations that injure workers result in nothing more than a warning letter. And those that do draw fines average about $500 per worker.

Enforcement varies widely from county to county. Overall, only a tiny percentage of pesticide violations resulted in fines. The number of fines issued by county for the misuse of pesticides during the six-year period varied from 1 to 401. For example, records show a violator in Sacramento County is about 10 times more likely to draw a fine than a violator in San Joaquin, Tulare, Kern, Kings or Merced counties. Several factors contribute to this stark difference, such as inconsistent enforcement, work load, state funding, and communication barriers.

The Record points out that most field workers say they've never even heard of agriculture commissioners, let alone know who they are, what they do or how to contact them. Unknown thousands of illnesses are never reported. Many farm workers fear deportation, speak little English, do not have easy access to doctors, and often cannot afford one.

Many of California's fertile valleys of fruits and vegetables must be picked by hand, putting workers in close proximity with a myriad of pesticides. Many of the insecticides and herbicides that farm workers breathe and touch every day can damage the eyes and lungs and are linked to increased cancer rates, sterility, Parkinson's disease, miscarriages and nerve damage. Many workers experience acute poisonings causing rashes, welts, nausea, headaches or dizziness. Other workers experience long-term health problems, such as 37-year-old Benito Salomon. Pesticide poisoning has cost him a lung, both kidneys, and he can no longer walk. The grower responsible received no fine.

California's Department of Pesticide Regulation, with a new chief on board, has reportedly begun to crack down on weak pesticide enforcement by revising guidelines and encouraging county-specific enforcement plans.

Source: Stockton Record (full story)

TAKE ACTION: Support farm workers' rights. Learn about workers' rights through Farmworker Justice Fund. Support United Farm Workers actions and pesticide alerts.