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Know the West

California sun and spray


California’s farmworkers support an $11 billion industry, making the state the nation’s leading agricultural producer and exporter. But their working conditions are often difficult – they’re exposed to harmful pesticides and dangerous levels of thirst and heat. Now, the LA Times reports that the state is considering approval of another hazardous pesticide, and it’s facing a lawsuit over shade and water requirements for workers.


California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation has resumed a review of the fumigant methyl iodide, which is used on strawberry fields. The state budget crisis halted review of the pesticide, which is being considered as a replacement for methyl bromide (being phased out because of its ozone-depleting effects). But methyl iodide has a more serious human impact—California’s own EPA lists it as a known carcinogen and pollution information site Scorecard.org ranked it as one of the most hazardous compounds to ecosystems and human health.

Dr. Susan Kegley, a consulting chemist for the Pesticide Action Network, told the Santa Cruz News:

“Methyl iodide is so toxic that scientists working with it in the laboratory take extreme caution when handling it, using a ventilation hood, gloves and special equipment for transferring it so it does not escape to the air,” … adding that [farm] workers would breathe 100 times the dose found acceptable by state law—and without the protection a lab provides.

Legislators and environmentalists fear that the state agency will fast-track approval of methyl iodide. The chemical has already been approved for use in every state except California, Washington and New York, despite objections from scientists, the United Farm Workers and the Pesticide Action Network

In addition to pesticide exposure, farm workers sometimes succumb to dehydration and heatstroke. Employers don’t always make water and shade available; even when they do, some workers are afraid to take advantage of them, fearing they’ll lose their job if they stop to rest and drink.

Since 2005, California has increased farm inspections, training and outreach to prevent heat-related deaths in the fields, in accordance with a “groundbreaking” law passed that year to protect workers. Still, there have been at least 10 such deaths in the last four years and a recent lawsuit alleges the state isn’t doing enough. 

But California’s Occupational Safety and Health Division spokesperson Dean Fryer told the LA Times that  compliance with the law is improving: only 16 percent non-compliance this year, down from 35 percent in 2008 and 48 percent in 2007. The division has made another emergency proposal to amend the 2005 law, the third this year, requiring that farm employers provide more water and shade for workers. So far the standards board has rejected those proposals.

"Farmworkers are not safe," said Catherine Lhamon, assistant legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which filed the suit. "The men and women who bring food to our tables are continuing to risk their lives and suffer hospitalization this summer because their employers deny them the water and shade they so desperately need."