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Daily News Blog

15
Dec

Migrant Farmworkers Repeatedly Doused with Toxic Pesticides, Lawsuit Documents

(Beyond Pesticides, December 15, 2020) Over two dozen Texan farmworkers working in Illinois fell ill after toxic pesticides were repeatedly sprayed over them via aircraft, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court this month. As the suit details, indiscriminate pesticide spray brought harm to several minors, elderly workers, and a pregnant mother. Plaintiffs are seeking numerous claims against Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of Corteva (formerly DowDupont), as well as the aerial spray company and applicator that contaminated workers. These include violations of federal law and other tort, wage, contract, and damage claims.

“No farmworker should be exposed to poisonous chemicals when doing their job, let alone multiple times in two weeks,” said Lisa Palumbo, Director of Legal Aid Chicago’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights project, which filed the suit alongside several other legal advocacy groups. “Migrant farmworkers are some of our most vulnerable workers, who grow and harvest the food we eat. Their employer is obligated to ensure they are safe from pesticide exposure, and that they are properly cared for and provided truthful information if exposure occurs. This did not happen here.”  

Two incidents are detailed in the complaint. With the first, occurring in July 2019, all farmworkers were wearing clearly visible neon orange hats and backpacks, working in corn fields in late afternoon. A helicopter suddenly flew overhead and began spraying an unknown pesticide. One worker, tasked with driving the bus, honked the horn to try to warn others to get out of the field, but many were immediately doused and began to take sick.

Managers at Pioneer Hi-Bred, “provided no emergency medical assistance, decontamination measures, or instructions to the workers about rinsing or washing themselves, and offered no transportation to a medical facility,” the complaint reads. Instead, workers were told to immediately board the bus. As a result, they were forced to try to decontaminate themselves at the motel rooms they were staying in. Some workers became progressively sick, developing diarrhea, skin rashes, headaches, loss of appetite, vomiting, and eye irritation. Tragically, many young children did as well. Without proper decontamination on site, a cramped motel room is likely to result in residual harm to other occupants, particularly children who are more sensitive to pesticide exposure than adults.

Unfortunately, as the records in the complaint show, neither Pioneer Hi-Bred nor the applicator learned any lessons from the experience. Because the next month, a worse incident occurred.

Workers were in the field detasseling corn (removing immature pollen-producing material to permit  better seed production) when a plane flew overhead multiple times, spraying an unknown pesticide. It was a clear day, and the corn was shorter than most of the workers – and the fact that they were all wearing bright orange clothing is important to the case . Workers ran out of the field to try to get away from the spray. Most workers were unable to rinse off or take off contaminating clothing. There was one hose with weak water pressure that workers had to line up to use. No instructions were provided – instead, not 15 minutes after the incident, workers were ordered back to the field.

After another 10 minutes, the plane came back and again released a spray over the workers. Horns were honked and workers again fled the field. Some workers that took to the field perimeter were ordered to run back through the contaminated crops in order to get back to their bus ride from work. One particularly sick worker had to be helped onto the bus.

No manager called an ambulance. No transportation was provided to medical facilities. No decontamination facilities were designated. Some workers urged Pioneer Hi-Bred to take the particularly sick individual straight to the hospital. The company instead instructed the bus to return to the motel where there would be medical personnel. But when the workers arrived, there were no medical professionals present.   

Managers at Pioneer Hi-Bred did go the hospital – to interfere with the treatment of workers who elected to go on their own volition, according to the complaint. These managers made erroneous statements, the complaint continues, that workers had been decontaminated, and tried to get medical staff to approve letters allowing them to return to work.

“These farmworkers suffered painful injuries due to the errant spraying of pesticides without proper protections and in violation of applicable legal standards,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “This lawsuit asks the Court to hold companies responsible for their failures to protect farmworkers from these harmful impacts of dangerous pesticides. In addition, this tragedy highlights the importance of strengthening the protective standards.”

Although workers were uncertain at the time, it appears that the fungicide Avaris and insecticide Sultrus were the products applied by aircraft. Avaris is a combination of two toxic fungicides – azoxystrobin and proicanazole, while Sultrus contains the synthetic pyrethroid cyfluthrin. In addition to the acute effects documented by the workers, these chemicals put chronically exposed individuals at risk of cancer, reproductive damage, neurotoxicity, and harm to the liver and kidneys.  

The incident detailed in the legal complaint is simply one particularly egregious, and now publicly available example of the sort of treatment farmworkers are consistently subject to in the U.S. Incidents like these underscore the urgent need to improve protections for the hardworking individuals who harvest our food.

Despite the risk of debilitating pesticide poisoning, most of the individuals involved in this incident earned only $9.25 an hour. And apart from chemical exposure, the complaint details other inhumane and degrading conditions these workers were subject to. Notably, Pioneer Hi-Bred would keep a manager outside of the (extremely dirty) port-a-potties, and each worker in line for the toilet would have to request from manager how much toilet paper they think they needed. The water they were provided by the company tasted strange and Pioneer Hi-Bred discouraged them from drinking too much of it (presumably, in order to keep them in the fields), according to the workers.

In the U.S. today, the average life expectancy for a farmworker is 49 years, compared to 78 for the general population. Their working conditions and safety are not properly covered by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration, but by inadequate provisions in federal pesticide law – provisions that, despite incidents like these, have nonetheless been subject to constant attacks by the outgoing Trump administration.

“Es trabajo pesado. Pero bonito,” (it is difficult work, but beautiful work), one Latina farmworker recently said in a report detailing their working conditions  But it is not enough to romanticize farmworker’s love for their work while ignoring the heinous conditions many experience, according to advocates.

Some workers are beginning to take the fight to their employers. “All we’re asking for is for fair wages and fair (working conditions),” said Rene Isidoro, a farmworker who joined a walkout earlier this year in Sunnyside, Washington. The workers, employed by Evans Fruit, said the company provides insufficient protective gear and training before pesticides are sprayed during work days that can last up to 15 hours.

As part of it Eating with a Conscience webpage, Beyond Pesticides writes, “While taking hazardous pesticides out of food production reduces hazards on the farm, farmworkers often face a lot of hardships that are not addressed by Eating with a Conscience. Farmworkers have long fought for better working conditions, wages and labor practices. To complement the contribution you are making by purchasing organic food, consider contacting the following organizations to learn what more you can do; Campesinos sin Fronteras; Centro Campesino; Coalition of Immokalee Workers; Domestic Fair Trade Association; Farmworker Association of Florida; Farmworker Health and Safety Institute; Farmworker Justice; Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO; Farmworker Support Committee (CATA); Lideres Campesinas; Northwest Treeplanters and Farm Workers United; United Farm Workers.

Beyond Pesticides stands in solidarity with farmworkers fighting against hazardous pesticide exposure, and for better conditions and better wages. Join us in urging President-elect Biden to advance a new vision for the U.S, Environmental Protection Agency—one that eschews chemical agriculture, embraces organic practices, and better protects the nation’s essential farmworkers.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Texas RioGrande Legal Aid press release, Legal Complaint – US District Court for the Central District of Illinois

 

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