Harvesting Poison

In the little-seen world of immigrant farmworkers, pesticides are a constant threat — and for the workers, the only options are shutting up or getting out.

  • Matt Wuerker
  • A Washington apple harvester works in a field posted witha sign warning of pesticide use

  • Juan Rios, shown here with his family, can't afford toquit his job as a unionized pesticide handler, even though he feelslike he is being poisoned

  • A study of Yaqui Indians in Mexico found children exposedto heavy pesticide use had severe developmentaldeficiencies

  • "If the pesticides land on me, they just make me morevigorous," says orchardist Robert Thacker, who never usesprotective clothing when he sprays

  • Washington orchard map

    Diane Sylvain
  • Washington state pesticide investigator David Zamora spokeout about violations he saw while on the beat. He has since beentransferred to a desk job

  • "These workers don't vote, so they don't count," saysGriselda Vega of the public-interest law firm, Columbia LegalServices

  • A farmworker sprays an orchard in the WenatcheeValley


SUNNYSIDE, Wash. — Long, ordered rows of grapevines and cherry trees cling to the edge of the Yakima River, filling this arid heart of eastern Washington with bounty. Scattered throughout the fields, hundreds of farmworkers perch on metal ladders, picking the shiny fruit and putting it into white plastic buckets strapped to their chests. The sound of someone singing in Spanish rises from the sea of green up into the searing heat of mid-morning.

Yet this bucolic scene is not as serene as it seems. Take a deep breath. Instead of the sweet scent of plants, the air is dusty, sharp and acidic. It’s the smell of pesticides, chemicals that protect trees from insects. It’s an odor that farmworker Juan Rios knows far too well.

Each summer, as the grapes clinging to their vines turn the reddish purple of a deep bruise, Rios feels like he is being poisoned. His head aches, he feels dizzy, nauseated, tired, and his nose won’t stop running. Rios sprays pesticides at a winery, working 12 hours a day, five days a week, and he suspects that the chemicals make him sick.

“I remember the first time I worked with the pesticidos, I was wearing a full mask while we were spraying, but it filled with blood; my nose, it wouldn’t stop bleeding. I was worried,” says Rios, 39, speaking in Spanish, in a rare moment in July away from the fields. As he sits in the United Farm Workers union office in the small town of Sunnyside, he describes how he’s experienced the lack of protection for farmworkers. On the wall above him is a portrait of the late Cesar Chavez, the farmworker activist who founded the original union in 1962; nearby hangs a Mexican flag. “I went to the doctor, but he didn’t give me anything,” Rios says. “He just told me to stop working with the pesticides.”

But Rios, who moved to this agricultural valley from central Mexico 18 years ago, can’t afford to quit his job. As a unionized pesticide handler, he makes $10 an hour in seasonal work — $3 more than the average Washington farmworker. The extra money has helped him support his two young daughters, and he’s been able to help 14 of his 15 brothers also flee poverty in Mexico and make the long trip north to live in this country. Anyway, he says with a shrug, as long as he works in agriculture, there’s no escaping the chemicals.

In their search for a better life, what Rios and so many other immigrants have found are the jobs that no one else wants. The West runs on this largely underground workforce, including the immigrants who mow our lawns, clean our hotel rooms, work in our restaurants, and construct our homes (HCN, 12/23/96: El Nuevo West). Farm work is the very bottom of the barrel. For those without documentation or English skills, it is often the only work they can find: 95 percent of farmworkers are immigrants, and nearly half are here illegally. But there’s a reason so many jobs in the fields are available.

Of 2.5 million farmworkers nationwide, 300,000 are poisoned to some degree each year, estimates the Environmental Protection Agency; 800 to 1,000 die, says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some surveys indicate the number of victims is higher. Pesticide handlers such as Rios are especially prone to exposure, as they apply round after round of pesticides using truck-mounted or backpack sprayers, but all farmworkers are vulnerable. The spray, which is also applied by planes and helicopters, can drift away from the targeted fields and land on workers — and their families — in nearby fields or living quarters. Even when the spray settles in the intended place, small amounts of the chemicals may remain on the plants, and when workers who thin and harvest crops re-enter the fields, they breathe and touch and rub their eyes with the dusty particles.

Studies suggest that farmworkers and their children are vulnerable to a torturous list of illnesses potentially related to pesticides: brain, breast, thyroid and prostate cancer, kidney and liver disease, childhood leukemia, infertility, neurological disorders, birth defects and reduced cognitive skills.

The workers are up against an agri-chemical juggernaut. In 1939, there were 32 pesticide products registered in the United States; now there are more than 20,000. Farmers spray an estimated 1.8 billion pounds of pesticides annually. That means big revenues for the industry, and the ability to exercise a lot of political clout through campaign contributions. Weigh that against the average farmworker earning $6,500 last year.

The disparity of wealth and power is reflected in a regulatory system that ignores the plight of farmworkers and discounts their importance in providing cheap, widely available food. “Despite the fact that farmworkers do extremely hard work and conduct utterly essential tasks, they are the most ignored, exploited and vulnerable population in this country. Their health needs are entirely subordinated” to the needs of the growers, the pesticide industry, and everyone who buys the crops, says Shelley Davis, co-director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. It’s a system whose failures are painfully obvious, but only to the people caught up in it.

“I know that the only way things will change is if I stop working in the fields,” says Rios, his long fingers drumming on the table. “But agriculture is such a huge force here — there really are no other options.”

The doctor

Twenty miles west of Sunnyside, in Toppenish, another small farming town, the waiting room at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic is packed. Dark-haired children spill off chairs to play on the floor, young men read Spanish-only newspapers; an old woman with dark Jackie O sunglasses and a pink scarf around her head clutches her purse. Everyone wears the tired and impatient look reserved for waiting rooms. In a back hall of the three-building complex, past bilingual signs and posters, Dr. Paul Monahan, an internist, talks about the challenges of diagnosing and treating pesticide poisoning.

“There’s not much in the textbooks or medical journals about pesticide exposure in farmworkers. Very few people are studying this, because there’s not a lot of money in it,” Monahan says, his pale blue eyes heavy with resignation. “If you were going to give a lecture on the world of pesticides, there would be a lot of blank slides.”

Not only has relatively little research been done on the long-term effects of exposure to pesticides, it’s an elusive problem, hard to diagnose and address. Many pesticides are basically diluted nerve gases, so when Monahan moved here 30 years ago to help open the nonprofit clinic, he worried that he would see a constant flow of pesticide-related illness. Yet in his time here, he has diagnosed only a handful of people. It’s tricky, he explains, because the symptoms, which are often flu-like, could have many causes, and for the majority of pesticides, there are no blood tests that detect overexposure.

Even if there were diagnostic tests, most farmworkers have no idea what chemicals they’ve been exposed to, and most have never been told about the long-term health effects. Nine out of 10 sick farmworkers never mention pesticide exposure, says Monahan. The majority of farmworkers at the clinic come to be treated for diabetes and obesity and the other diseases that ride the bus with poverty.

“Pesticide poisoning is a lot like lead poisoning: If you look for it, you’ll find it, but it’s easily dismissed as something else,” says Monahan. “I often find there’s not enough hours in the day to tackle these issues.”

The physicians and epidemiologists who are studying pesticide exposure find plenty to worry about. Five-year-old children in Mexico who were exposed to pesticides suffer giant lags in development — they can’t catch a ball, draw pictures of people, or perform simple tasks involving memory and neuromuscular skills, according to a study by Elizabeth Guillette, an anthropologist now with the University of Florida. An EPA doctor of public health, Dina Schreinemachers, recently found that babies born in Montana’s major wheat-producing counties, where herbicides are sprayed routinely, are twice as likely to have birth defects as those born in rural counties with low wheat production. And in California, farmworkers have elevated levels of leukemia, stomach, uterine and brain cancers, according to research funded in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Cancer Research Program.

Although those studies were published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a prestigious medical journal, they are limited in scope and remain open to criticism for a range of reasons. Research into pesticide effects is still in its infancy, in need of more extensive studies over a longer time period.

Monahan likens the situation to the history of tobacco and lung cancer: Studies showed there was a relationship for decades before people believed smoking was dangerous. Once hundreds of studies produced similar findings, the balance tipped against tobacco. The National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are finally conducting large studies measuring pesticide exposure and related illness in farmworkers, but the final results aren’t due for over a decade.

The situation is endlessly frustrating for Monahan, who became a doctor because he wanted to be useful to society. “If the (patient’s health) problem is caused by pesticides, there’s a good chance you can’t prove it, and if you do try to trace the problem to pesticide exposure, there’s not really any treatment,” says Monahan, as he hurries off to see another patient. “With pesticides, we in the medical community are caught in a perfect catch-22.”

The farmer

As orchardist Robert Thacker walks past rows of recently harvested apricot trees, his metal knees betray him — the legacy of 26 years spent in another difficult job, squatting to lay foundation for the Columbia River dams. His pace is as slow and creaky as a ’54 Ford truck with a rusty clutch. Thacker says pesticides are essential to his orchard’s operation, and he doesn’t believe the chemicals he uses are a legitimate health concern.

“I never wear a spray suit; I can’t stand those things. But look at me: I’m 67 and healthy,” says Thacker. With a wink and a mischievous grin, he shows off fist-sized apricots, already boxed and ready to be shipped to Texas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. “If the pesticides land on me, they just make me more vigorous.”

More than 30 years ago, when Thacker’s knees fell apart, he and his wife moved to this 40-acre orchard on the cliffs above the Columbia River, near Wenatchee. At first, he says, he made a good living growing apples, peaches and apricots. Then in the 1990s, global market pressure, including competition with Australian and Chilean growers, made it unprofitable for many Washington orchardists to continue to grow Red Delicious apples. Many Washington growers gave up — they’ve uprooted nearly 40,000 acres of Red Delicious in the past five years. Thacker uprooted eight acres of apple trees, and the loss, he says, “damn near broke us.”

Like many growers, Thacker faces a host of pressures, including thin profit margins and drought. In such challenging times, growers and Farm Bureau lobbyists say that pesticides are the one thing that can be depended on. Thacker would like to retire, but feels stuck. His land, worth $800,000 in the 1980s, is now worth about half of that, he says. As he stops his creaky stroll through the orchard to fix the engine on an aging blue tractor, he also laments that hard times for growers mean less opportunity for farmworkers. He speaks with affection about the people who work for him, some of whom have returned to his farm every summer from Mexico for 28 years in a row.

Still, he admits that sometimes he bends the rules on pesticide application and expects workers to re-enter fields too soon after spraying. “The regulations are killing us. If we stuck to every rule there was, we could not do it,” he says, frowning as he takes a long pull on a cigarette. “My workers, they go in and pick, and they’re well aware of the pesticides we’ve sprayed; they know the damn stuff won’t hurt ’em.”

The pesticide cop

Highway 2 snakes its way westward from Wenatchee, between parched sagebrush hillsides that wear a fringe of green orchards. As David Zamora, a pesticide specialist with the Washington Department of Agriculture, drives it, he describes his experiences in a regulatory system which, at the state and federal level, treats farmworkers like second-class citizens.

In 1996, after a decade of discussion, the EPA began to enforce the Worker Protection Standard, which calls for a range of safety measures. The federal standard calls for workers to have protective gear, for example, and describes what must be worn in different situations: Gloves, long-sleeved shirts and masks are typically required for spraying pesticides.

Yet even when protective gear is provided and worn, farmworkers still face exposure. That was shown by researchers at the University of Washington, who, in a 2002 study, added fluorescent tracers to pesticides. Hours after pesticides were sprayed on fields, their fluorescent traces could be detected on the people who did the spraying, despite the protective gear. Even though one pesticide handler wore a full-face respirator and heavy work pants, pesticide dust stuck to his chin and upper lip, and the chemicals peppered his legs and ankles.

The federal standard also requires that farmworkers have access to information about which pesticides are sprayed in their workplace. They are supposed to receive training, which often amounts to a 20-minute video about what to do if they feel nauseated or otherwise ill, or get pesticides in their eyes.

Other federal regulations set the time periods between spraying and workers’ re-entering the fields — required delays that range from several hours to 14 days, depending on which chemical is used. But those regulations — weak when compared to other occupational standards that aim to completely isolate workers from toxic chemicals — are rarely enforced, says Zamora.

Zamora, who enforces the federal regulations, says that every time he goes out, he sees people spraying pesticides too close to unprotected workers. But the state Agriculture Department usually conducts an investigation only when a grower or farmworker initiates a complaint. Only one of the agency’s 13 pesticide specialists speaks Spanish, he says, so he and the other agents often have to rely on employers to translate employee grievances. It’s a situation that doesn’t encourage farmworkers, fearful for their job security, to trust regulators.

“A guy can have three strikes, he can be hurting people, before anything really happens. No wonder growers around here think they’re above the law,” says Zamora, whose tan skin and dark eyes indicate his own Mexican heritage (his father was an immigrant). “We’re a police agency. We should be out looking for problems, but that never happens.”

For Zamora, who has a doctorate in botany and more than 20 years of experience with pesticides, including five years with the department, cracking down on pesticide violations has become a personal struggle. One day in 2000, as he was picking up his 9-year-old son from school, he noticed the neighboring orchardist spraying pesticides and the drift floating onto the playground, where many young children played on the swings and in the dirt. He took soil samples and discovered a cocktail of harmful pesticide chemicals.

“It scared the hell out of me,” says Zamora, shaking his head. “You don’t have to read the label to know that pesticides are toxic. Every time you go and sit in an orchard, it makes you sick. I don’t want my kids anywhere near that.”

Since the school incident, Zamora has instigated investigations. It isn’t making him popular. He’s received a death threat, and local politicians and grower advocates have tried to get him fired. Recently, when Zamora charged a large apple grower with spraying pesticides too close to a public walkway, the company called a meeting with legislators and contacted the director of the Department of Agriculture. Ultimately, the department decided to call off the investigation because it was too hot politically.

A few weeks before this story went to press, Zamora was transferred out of the field to a non-agricultural desk job. Zamora’s boss, Cliff Weed, says the action was “not a performance issue, but due to the concerns of people in the area, we did not think Dave could be an effective investigator. This is an opportunity for things to cool down.”

In the face of this kind of political pressure, only one Western state collects accurate, detailed information about which pesticides are used where, when and in what amounts — California, where the United Farm Workers union is strongest. The federal government has no clearinghouse for the information that does exist and no specific policy to direct state efforts. The limited national oversight coupled with local political pressure means that state agencies have little incentive to enforce the law. Of the 5,400 investigations of pesticide poisoning conducted by all states’ departments of agriculture in 2002, only 102 resulted in monetary fines.

But the government failure actually begins upstream, with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which creates pesticide policy.

When the EPA registers pesticide products for use, a team composed of a diverse array of experts balances the chemical’s possible health risks against economic considerations. “We evaluate whether the pesticide will cause death or a relatively reversible ailment, and then we’ll weigh that against whether a farmer has any other options, and how expensive they are for getting rid of a certain pest,” says Rich Dumas of the EPA’s pesticide programs office. “It’s a pretty amorphous process.”

The health risks are calculated in terms of how many additional cases of cancer or other diseases would be caused by different levels of exposure. But without the scientific studies to accurately determine those risks, the assessment all too easily tilts to the side of economics, critics say. For the past several years, a group of chemical companies (the Agricultural Reentry Task Force) conducted the studies used to determine health risks. This data was not brought before the EPA’s scientific advisory panel; instead, a panel of scientists selected and paid by industry conducted the peer review.

“It’s definitely a mixture of science and politics,” says Richard Fenske, a University of Washington professor of health sciences, who served on the advisory panel.

The EPA’s cozy relationship with industry also shows in the backgrounds of many top agency officials, who in the past have worked for agricultural or pesticide companies. Linda Fisher, the EPA’s deputy administrator (the agency’s number two position), used to lobby for Monsanto, a top agri-chemical company, for example. High-ranking EPA officials also often leave the agency to work for pesticide interests, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group.

“When there is a revolving door between industry and the government,” says Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “are the regulators protecting farmworkers, or are they protecting their former and future associates and friends in the private sector?”

Pesticide companies say such criticism is unfair, because there is a rigorous process to create and register new products. To win approval from the EPA, a pesticide must pass as many as 120 tests, a process that can take up to nine years. “It’s a daunting task. We are one of the most highly regulated industries,” says Pat Donnelly, senior vice president of CropLife America, a biotechnology and pesticide products trade organization. “We have always been proponents of a rigorous safety program, so we work cooperatively with EPA. We fundamentally share the same goal.”

Within a limited budget, the EPA has funded several of the long-term studies. The agency is also working to develop a better pesticide-poisoning screening process for doctors, and has started to compile state investigations of pesticide exposure. “The program (regulating farmworker exposure) seems to be working,” says Jack Neylan, a Washington, D.C.-based EPA branch chief. “This is not to say that it couldn’t be improved, and nobody thinks we’re there yet, but it’s better than what we had before.”

The lawyer

All this ongoing research provides little consolation for farmworkers and their advocates. And few farmworkers are in any position to fight for better protection: They lack even the most basic form of political clout.

“These workers don’t vote, so they don’t count,” says Griselda Vega, a lawyer for Columbia Legal Services, a public-interest law firm. Sitting in a Mexican restaurant in Sunnyside, where Spanish telenovelas blare from the television, Vega alternates between taking bites of her torta con pollo and talking animatedly about a host of farmworker issues.

The workers don’t have adequate housing; many live in barracks or other crowded housing on the farms, or on public land in makeshift shelters made with tree limbs, blankets and tarps. Most of them have less than an eighth-grade education, and no health insurance. While Vega represents a few clients who claim they’ve been poisoned by pesticides, for the most part she fights for farmworkers who have not been paid — sometimes for more than a year.

“The core of all of these problems is exploitation and racism. These people are expendable,” says Vega, 28, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first in her family to graduate from college. “If an employee gives their boss a hard time, he’s out of work. Fast. Jobs are really hard to come by and there is a steady flow of immigrants looking for work.”

The U.S.-Mexico border is a militarized zone, with a force of Border Patrol agents larger than the FBI’s number of agents (HCN, 10/9/00: Hunters and the hunted). Even so, more than 300,000 people illegally cross the border every year. The constant supply of desperate workers undermines attempts to organize farmworkers and gain power.

“We have to face the fact that there are 5 to 8 million unauthorized workers in this country,” says Don Villarejo, founder of the California Institute for Rural Studies, a Davis-based policy center. “It’s time for plan B.”

Villarejo thinks the U.S. should work to improve Mexico’s economy, so that immigrants have less incentive to leave their country. He also wants to make it easier for immigrants to work in the U.S. legally, without offering them permanent residence. Before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President Bush met with Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, and attempted to hammer out a new guest-worker program. So far, nothing has come of it. Various members of Congress continually propose immigration reform and get voted down (HCN, 12/18/00: Troubled Harvest).

Vega and other lawyers for farmworkers see few or no prospects for change. Pesticide-exposure cases are hard to win. There are few laws on the books — so few that even salmon are afforded more protection than farmworkers. In July, a federal judge ruled that the EPA must establish buffer zones along streams for more than 50 pesticides, because salmon are protected by the Endangered Species Act. While Vega praises environmental groups for their work on the salmon case, she says they should also use their clout and their lawyers to protect farmworkers.

“I understand that their members care about salmon, and it’s good that they’re protecting wildlife, but I’m out here in eastern Washington and I see what goes on, and it just seems so wrong that I can’t get the same protection for human beings,” says Vega. “It’s ridiculous to me that the general public cares more about a little fish than about farmworkers.”

Legal-aid organizations, the farmworkers’ union, and a smattering of farmworker justice groups are left to fight in the courts for small victories, which result in better protective gear, bilingual signage that indicates which pesticides are being sprayed, and regular blood tests to monitor exposure to some chemicals.

The farmworker

Change may also begin with farmworkers like Juan Rios. About seven years ago, Rios and Columbia Legal Services sued the state for not protecting farmworkers from pesticides. Specifically, the case demanded that pesticide handlers be provided with regular blood tests to monitor cholinesterase, an indicator of elevated levels of pesticide poison. In February 2002, Rios won: The state Supreme Court found the monitoring was “both necessary and doable.”

Yet the victory is bittersweet. The state has involved public stakeholders to create the monitoring rules, including growers and other industry representatives, as well as farmworker representatives. The farmworkers feel outnumbered and outgunned, and the process has become a political quagmire. There have been more than 20 meetings, and still no blood tests have been offered.

Rios is lucky, because the union has organized the workforce at the winery where he sprays pesticides on grapes. Less than 1 percent of farmworkers are unionized; those who are can press complaints and lawsuits and talk to reporters with less risk of losing their jobs.

“If people don’t have documentation, they won’t come forward. I guess they feel that they can’t afford to,” says Rios. “I hope this court case will make a difference for my colleagues and myself.”

Even with the potential for new monitoring, Rios worries about his health. And he worries about the pesticides that stick to his clothes at the end of the day, which he likely takes home to his two young daughters, Jacqueline Elizabeth, 4 years old, and Julianne Salome, 9 months old.

Rios is doing what he can to map out another life. He is taking night classes to learn English, and plans to earn a college degree. “I realize being a farmworker is an honorable job, but I would like to maybe do something else, like be an architect, or maybe I would own my own orchard someday,” says Rios. Then he quickly interrupts himself with a laugh. “An organic orchard.”

 Rebecca Clarren writes from Portland, Oregon.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- What child labor laws?

- Healthy workers, healthy label

- Connections to your kitchen

Farm Worker Pesticide Project in Seattle, Carol Dansereau, 206-522-5287

Columbia Legal Services branch office in Yakima, Wash., Griselda Vega, 509-575-5593 or www.columbialegal.org

Environmental Protection Agency Kevin Keaney, branch chief for worker protection, Arlington, Va., 703-305-5557

CropLife America a pesticides and biotech trade group, in Washington, D.C., 202-296-1585 or www.croplifeamerica.org.


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