August 4, 2000
Sacramento-A measure to make California's fields safer for farm workers faces its most difficult test on August 9 when it goes before the Assembly Agriculture Committee. SB 1523, introduced by Senator Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont), requires that growers post warning signs on their fields whenever they use dangerous pesticides that require the field to be quarantined for 24 hours or more. This measure would change existing law, which in most cases does not require posting unless the field is under quarantine for eight days or longer.
According to the California Department of Pesticide Regulations ("DPR"), every year, the current eight day posting rule results in more than 1.5 million fields that-although under legal quarantine-have no warning signs to alert farm workers or anybody else that the field is too dangerous to enter. California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation ("CRLAF"), the bill's sponsor, believe that this major safety loophole results in hundreds of farm workers being unnecessarily exposed to dangerous pesticides every year.
"When you have more than 500,000 farm workers near 1.5 million pesticide-treated fields without warning signs, it's a formula for worker poisonings. And we know these exposures occur too often because of breakdowns in communication between pesticide applicators, growers and field supervisors," said J. Felix De La Torre, CRLAF Staff Attorney. "Warning signs are an inexpensive and simple method of preventing these needless accidents," added De La Torre.
According to DPR, the number of workers injured every year by pesticides runs in the several hundreds, but the number of workers injured from entering a pesticide treated field too early has been around 40 per year. CRLAF and other farm worker groups believe that DPR's statistics represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true number of pesticide exposures. CRLAF points out that DPR's statistics represent the number of workers reported ill, but do not account for workers who are "exposed" to pesticides. This practice results in the serious undercounting of pesticide exposures.
"If a crew of 20 workers is accidentally exposed to a harmful pesticide, but only one worker goes to the doctor, then DPR reports the statistic as one injury and disregards the other 19 workers. In essence, this ignores the chronic effects of pesticide exposure," stated De La Torre.
CRLAF researcher, Anne Katten, adds that "exposure to pesticide residue may cause delayed or chronic health problems without causing any immediate sickness." Such delayed or chronic effects can include damage to the nervous system, cancer, and harm to an unborn child. Additionally, pesticide residues are also brought home to workers' families on the worker's clothes and shoes.
The undercounting problem is further complicated by the other factors. For a variety of reasons, farm workers rarely report pesticide-related illnesses. The reasons for under-reporting range from the worker's lack of health coverage or their unwillingness to lose work time, to their immigration status or fear of employer retaliation. Even when sick workers seek medical attention, misdiagnoses is common since pesticide illnesses bear a strong resemblance to the flu or other common ailments, and few doctors are well versed in pesticide-illness diagnosis.
As for warning signs, this is not the first time that farm worker advocates have attempted to pass such a law. In 1986 and 1987, the legislature approved two similar measures. Those bills, however, were both vetoed by then Governor Deukmejian. CRLAF, however, remains hopeful that the committee will give the bill a fair hearing and vote according to the bill's merits. Thus far, this measure has gained the Senate's approval and has passed the Assembly Labor Committee.
De La Torre, however, concedes that the battle over warning signs pits one of California's most politically influential forces, the grower organizations, against farm workers, California's most vulnerable population.