Aerial sprayer douses farmworkers

Twenty two farm workers including three pregnant women were rushed to hospitals last week after being poisoned by a mixture of toxic pesticides while harvesting grapes near Bakersfield, California, according to United Farm Workers (UFW). A crop dusting plane was applying pesticides to a nearby cotton field when the accident occurred. It is estimated that as many as 225 additional farm workers were also exposed to the chemicals, which drifted into the grape fields. Victims exhibited a range of pesticide poisoning symptoms including vomiting and irritated eyes and noses.

According to county officials, the plane was spraying cotton for mites and aphids with a mixture of Lorsban (chlorpyrifos), Danitol (fenpropathrin) and Curacron (profenofos). A slight breeze carried the pesticides toward the grape field where the chemicals drizzled down on workers, many of whom tried to escape by running away. Most of the affected workers were treated at local hospitals and released the same day. One pregnant woman was held overnight for observation.

A county agricultural commissioner stated that the poisoning was "a somewhat unique occurrence," and that "for a crop duster plane to affect a mass of people, that's not common at all." However, UFW charged that pesticide drift is very common, and stated that "thousands of farm workers in vineyards and fields are exposed to toxic poisons every day -- often without their knowledge."

The crop dusting company responsible for the accident maintains that the pilot was experienced and followed regulated pesticide application methods when he sprayed the cotton field. According to the county officials, the chemicals were registered for use on cotton and no prior notification of the spraying was required.

Dr. Marion Moses of the California based Pesticide Education Center pointed out that even though crop dusters may follow current laws there are still many dangers. "Pesticide molecules follow the law of physics, not the rules of the state of California," she said. Several studies have indicated that 50 to 75% of pesticides applied by aircraft miss their target, and some scientists believe that pesticides applied by air drift at least five times further than they do in ground spraying. In 1994 there were 155 possible cases of pesticide exposure from drift near farms, most from aerial spraying, according to the California Department of Pesticide Regulations (DPR).

Danitol is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a Category I acute toxin, the most potent class of toxic chemicals. Lorsban and Curacron are both classified as Category II toxins. Chlorpyrifos, the active ingredient in Lorsban, is one of the most widely used insecticides in the U.S. and is also one of the leading causes of pesticide poisonings in the U.S., according to the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP). Chlorpyrifos causes a range of neurological problems and has been linked to human birth defects, fetal death in animals and damage to human and animal reproductive systems. Of reported agricultural pesticide poisonings in California between 1984 and 1990, chlorpyrifos ranked fifth in systemic and respiratory illnesses and sixth in acute illnesses. Approximately three million pounds were applied in California for agricultural purposes in 1994, according to DPR.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, September 5 and September 7, 1996; "Preventing Pesticide-related Illness in California Agriculture," Bill Pease et. al., 1993; "Environmental and Economic Costs of Pesticide Use," David Pimentel et. al., 1992; Pesticide Use Report, Annual 1994, Indexed by Chemical, DPR, 1996; The Bakersfield Californian, September 5, 1996; "Statement from Arturo Rodriguez, President, United Farm Workers, on Pesticide Poisoning of Grape Workers," UFW Press Release, September 4, 1996.

Contacts: Jocelyn Sherman, United Farm Workers, 519 Main Street, Watsonville, CA 95076; phone (408) 763-4820; fax (408) 728-4590; PANNA.

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