Pesticide Risk to Farm Workers

Article excerpt

Pesticide Risk To Farm Workers

In August 1983, Zacarias Ruiz was spraying a weed-and-bug killer called Dinoseb on cotton in Texas. Like most "undocumented workers,' he wore no special clothing to shield him from the chemical which leaked profusely from his backpack sprayer. Later that day, he developed a high fever and was taken to the local hospital, where he was given aspirin. A few hours later he died, another victim of pesticide misuse and a regulatory system that fails to prevent it.

What exactly caused Ruiz's death? Clearly, the leaky sprayer should have been fixed before he put it on. And he should have been wearing protective clothing, required by law in California but not at the time in Texas or other states. But the whole tragic affair could have been avoided if the manufacturer, Platte Chemical, had stated clearly on the label that Dinoseb poisonings should not be treated with aspirin, which makes the chemical more potent. Although pesticide labels are supposed to bear such warnings, the Environmental Protection Agency hadn't got around to checking up on Dinoseb, or the dozens of other products that pose similar risks.

No one is quite sure how many people in the United States are poisoned by pesticides each year, since most field hands don't seek medical treatment unless they become incapacitated, or even how many are at risk of falling ill from pesticide exposure. According to a Federal task force, about half of the nation's 5 million agricultural laborers face the same danger Zacarias Ruiz did. Farm workers' organizations in various states paint a more disturbing picture: in some instances, fully two-thirds of the work force has been sprayed directly or covered with drifting insecticides, while an even greater number may be contaminated by "dislodgeable residues,' which shake loose from standing crops.

Strangely, the E.P.A. has interpreted the lack of information as an argument in favor of relaxed vigilance. Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), adopted in 1947 and rewritten in 1972, the agency is charged with insuring that pesticides "will not generally cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment,' including human beings. Agency scientists review toxicological data supplied by manufacturers and set a so-called tolerance level for residues in food. They also decide how each chemical should be applied: for example, an insecticide that is registered for use on potatoes at two pounds per acre may not legally be sprayed at other dosages or on other crops. Normally, the E.P.A. will not license a new pesticide (or will cancel an old one) if it causes cancer, birth defects or other serious disorders at a rate higher than one per million among the general population. But until recently, the agency had steadfastly refused to require tests by manufacturers that measure the unique exposure of farm workers or to impose restrictions aimed at reducing it. Instead, the agency pretends that everybody, even field hands who work in an atmosphere permeated with pesticide residues, absorbs no more than the minute quantities allowed in food.

Why the charade? Because FIFRA was a political compromise forged under intense pressure from both the farm lobby and the chemical industry. Unlike other labor laws, notably the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, FIFRA does not set strict standards for the workplace. It instructs the E.P.A. to balance pesticide regulations against the cost to growers or anyone else "throughout the agricultural economy.' Thus, agency officials are constantly required to judge whether the added expense of, say, including a warning against aspirin on a product label will be offset by the savings in human illness and suffering.

The results of such compromises are inevitable. Whereas the E.P.A. usually sticks to its one-per-million rule when the general public is at risk, with farm workers it is willing to take much greater chances: one in 100,000 or less. …