September 7, 2007

Closing the Pesticide Loophole

By Lizeth Casares
New America Media

Luis Medellin knows all too well the dangers of exposure to pesticides.

This resident of a small, all-Mexican community in Lindsey, Calif., constantly watched farm workers and local residents getting exposed to the pesticides sprayed in the fields next to his house.

“I would wake up and see the guy with the pesticide machine, wearing no protective gear, spraying pesticide 10 to 20 feet away,” he said.

One night a year ago, Medellin woke up with a headache and could smell the pungent pesticide, possibly coming in through the air vents. As he walked around the house, he saw his mom and three sisters tossing and turning in their beds.

“I went to drink some water and couldn’t keep it down,” he said. “I could taste the pesticide in the back of my throat.”

Soon the rest of his family woke up. Everyone complained they had a headache.

Medellin’s family was one of 60 living in a community that was constantly being exposed to pesticides. After the events of that night, the Medellins and some of the other families in Lindsey filed a class-action lawsuit against farm owners who allowed the pesticide poisonings to occur.

With millions of pounds of pesticides being used to protect California’s crops each year, lawmakers are working to improve safety measures and protect those who are most vulnerable to pesticide exposure— people like the Medellin family.

To ensure the well-being of farm workers, the state currently requires landowners to take blood samples from employees who work around pesticides. But for the 30 years the law has been in place, employers have had the opportunity to take advantage of a loophole that doesn’t require them to send the results of the blood tests to state public health agencies.

To close this loophole Assemblywoman Sally Lieber has proposed a bill that will require the laboratories to send the test results to the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The bill is currently under review by the Senate Health Committee.

According to the Center for Disease Control, severe exposure to pesticides can cause respiratory problems, cardiac failure, renal failure and even death. By mandating that the test results be sent to the state, Lieber said, legislators and government agencies can ensure that farm workers are not being subject to such exposure.

Lieber said the government had a responsibility to ensure that this information did not just stay confined within the agro-business.

The impact of pesticide exposure is more apparent in the Latino community, which forms the majority of the state’s agriculture workers.

“We know that our farm workers are mostly very poor Latino workers. We depend on them for our food supply in California and even across the nation,” Lieber said.

She said that she had recently spoken to a young man working at the Capitol, who reportedly grew up in a farm worker household. Every day his parents would come home completely exhausted and vomiting from the pesticides they were exposed to at work.

Stephanie Camoroda, policy analyst for the Latino Issues Forum (LIF), said the bill would help document the number of pesticide exposures occurring in California.

“In 1999 and 2000 there was a report that showed that the highest rates of pesticide poisoning happened in the Central Valley,” she said. “And we know that pesticide poisonings are still being widely unreported.”

Camoroda said that by sending the results to the state there would be more accurate and conclusive information about pesticide poisonings. According to LIF, 315 million pounds of pesticide are used each year— a quarter of that in California’s Central Valley.

The effects of pesticide exposure can be seen in many Mexican American children, according to a recent report jointly compiled by several organizations, including the Center for Disease Control, University of California at Berkeley and the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas.

The study examined 396 newborn children of primarily Latino farm workers in Salinas Valley who had been exposed to pesticides. Researchers studied the children during the first 24 months of their lives and found that the indirect exposure to pesticides they had encountered in the womb led to problems with their mental and physical development later on.

Veronica Montoya, policy director for Latinos for a Healthy California, said her organization supports Lieber’s bill because the information gathered could help develop more legislation around health issues.

“The state will be able to do much more then they have in the past,” she said.

Several laboratories and testing facilities initially opposed this bill since a provision in it would have fined them for not sending in test results. That forced lawmakers to amend the bill.

Lieber said that it was important that California have such a bill.

“We really have a responsibility to treat farm workers not just as another machine. We have to look at the health effects placed on them,” Lieber said.

Lizeth Cazares. Cazares is an English Major at the University of California Davis and a participant in the journalism program at University of California Center in Sacramento.

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