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From August 23, 2006                                                                                                        

Farm Workers Ill After Chemical Exposure
(Beyond Pesticides, August 23, 2006)
According to the Fresno Bee, about 50 farmworkers were exposed last Thursday to sulfuric acid being sprayed on a nearby dirt field. The incident left the workers “scared, itchy and nauseated,” and the vineyard owner upset.

Sulfuric acid is used in a host of pesticide formulations. However, the incident illustrates an anomaly in the state of California because sulfuric acid is used there as a fertilizer and not a pesticide. The Fresno County agricultural commissioner does not regulate how the chemical is applied, nor does the applicator have to obtain a permit for its use.

The sulfuric acid was being sprayed as a fertilizer in a dirt field about 75 feet from where the workers were picking grapes. The workers were downwind from brisk winds when they began feeling ill. Lupe Morales, one of the workers, said she was packing table grapes when she and other workers started having sore, dry throats and itchy red eyes. Ms. Morales said her heart also started beating faster. “We didn’t know what it was until someone said they were spraying chemicals in the field next to us,” she said. “The smell that we got was like the spray you use on roaches.”

By the time Fresno County officials and ambulances arrived, the farmworkers had scattered to places unknown, leaving harvested grapes on the vineyard ground. Ms. Morales said the workers fled after a sheriff’s deputy told everyone to leave the field.

Alex Zendejas, who works for Verdegaal Brothers, Inc. of Hanford, California, the company allegedly responsible for the spraying, said he told the workers he was spraying the field. He also said the chemical did not affect him, according to the article.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Mr. Zendejas said. “It never came in direct contact with anyone.”

Jerry Prieto Jr., Fresno County agriculture commissioner, said that sulfuric acid is commonly used to adjust the pH level in soils prior to planting. Sulfuric acid can irritate the skin and respiratory system and cause nausea, said Daniel Betancur, a county environmental health investigator dispatched to the vineyard. Mr. Prieto said his office will investigate the incident.