Blood Testing for Pesticides order for Oregon Farmworkers
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Pesticide testing ahead for many state farmworkers
By Andrew Garber Seattle Times staff reporter
SUNNYSIDE, Yakima County — Juan Rios says he used to get sick working with pesticides in vineyards, suffering pains, dizziness, a bloody nose.
His doctor told him, "If you want your health to improve, you really should go ahead and leave this job."
But Rios, with a family to support, decided to keep working and do something he felt would protect people in the field: He sued the state to force growers to test workers for pesticide exposure.
This week, the state Department of Labor and Industries is expected to adopt rules requiring blood samples from workers who handle certain pesticides.
More than 1,000 workers would be checked for exposure starting next year. By 2005, the regulation could cover about 3,000 people, at a cost of more than $1 million annually.
Labor and Industries is drafting the regulations, under order by the state Supreme Court, six years after Columbia Legal Services filed the lawsuit on behalf of Rios and other farmworkers.
Some companies already test workers voluntarily, but there's no state requirement. And there's heated opposition to the tests by many in the agricultural industry, who argue they're expensive and unneeded and could push some people out of business. Growers say they'll likely take their concerns to the state Legislature next session.
There's also disagreement in the scientific community over the value of the tests. Some believe they're needed, others don't.
"It's a waste of everybody's time and money," said Allan Felsot, a toxicologist at Washington State University who serves on the state's Pesticide Incident Reporting and Tracking panel (PIRT).
The rules are aimed at protecting workers from a class of pesticides called organophosphates and carbamates. Both compounds affect the central nervous system by depressing cholinesterase, an enzyme that helps regulate the nervous system.
The chemicals were originally created in the 1930s as pesticides and were later developed into neurotoxins, or nerve gas, by the German military in World War II.
Although the pesticides have gotten much safer to use over the years, they're still "among the most toxic chemicals we routinely use," said Dr. Matthew Keifer, head of prevention and intervention at the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center.
About 825,000 pounds of organophosphate and carbamate pesticides were sprayed on apple orchards in Washington in 2001, one of the main crops that routinely uses the chemicals.
Overexposure can overstimulate the nervous system, causing flulike symptoms, blurred vision, increased sweating, nausea, vomiting, muscle twitches, decreased coordination and, in severe cases, death.
There are no accurate figures available for organophosphates and carbamates poisonings, but a state Department of Health study indicates there were 88 confirmed or potential cases of pesticide-related illness among Washington agricultural workers in 2000, the latest figures available.
Many experts contend those numbers are too low, and there are a significant number of workers who don't report pesticide exposures because they don't want to miss work or are afraid of losing their jobs.
"It would be amazing if illnesses were fully reported," said Michael Wood, who is helping draft the blood-test rules for Labor and Industries.
Rios has been handling pesticides for 13 years. The 40-year-old talks to lots of workers and says he knows they often don't report exposures.
"They think, 'If I say anything, it's going to affect my family,' " he said through an interpreter from Columbia Legal Services, which provides free legal services to people who have special legal needs or are low-income.
"They don't have the liberty to think about health in the short term because there are long-term consequences for the family."
Rios said his work conditions have improved over time. He now works as a supervisor. His company offers training and full protective gear to workers and voluntarily monitors cholinesterase levels. Still, he said he has talked to workers at other farms where that's not the case.
"Workers complain that they don't get the filters changed in their masks," he said. "And the masks aren't fitted correctly, and the overalls and coats are either old or deteriorated."
Arnoldo Navarro, who was part of the lawsuit with Rios, says he has gotten sick working with and around chemicals in orchards in the past, suffering from headaches, rashes and a bloody nose.
Although he was wearing protective gear, Navarro says he wasn't properly trained in how to use it.
He didn't say anything, because "if the employer finds out that you've made some kind of complaint and they eventually get the report, then they're going to either treat you bad and make you want to quit, or they just fire you," he said through an interpreter.
The Supreme Court ruling last year took Labor and Industries to task for not requiring the agricultural industry to test workers for pesticide exposure, ruling that the "denial of the pesticide handlers' request for rulemaking was unreasonable."
The rules being drafted by Labor and Industries would require blood samples to be taken before workers begin handling pesticides. A follow-up sample would be required after they've worked continuously with organophosphates and carbamates for 50 hours in any consecutive 30-day period. In the second year, the rules would require testing after 30 hours. Employees would have the option to decline the blood tests.
If a worker's cholinesterase level drops by 20 percent, a workplace investigation would be required. Workers would have to be temporarily removed from working with pesticides if tests show a drop of 30 percent or more.
Farmers would be required to pay for the tests, though the state plans to help out the first year.
The state projects the tests would cost companies several hundred dollars annually for each person who handles pesticides. The total cost to companies covered under the proposed rules is estimated at about $1.25 million annually by 2005. Some agricultural groups contend the state's estimates are far too low.
In any case, Jim Doornink is worried.
He has a 110-acre fruit farm in Wapato, outside Yakima, where he grows apples, cherries, pears, peaches and apricots.
Doornink said he grosses about $500,000 a year but clears only around $50,000 after expenses, in a good year.
"Any time you add a cost like this, it's difficult," he said. "It costs money, not only in lost time but in the cost of the test."
Farmers like himself, Doornink said, have no way to pass on the cost because of national and global competition.
Doornink said he wouldn't use pesticides if he didn't have to. "If we didn't spray the apples for codling moth, in two years almost every apple would have a codling moth in it.
"The public has this concept, 'We can tolerate not such a pretty apple. We don't mind if there's a worm in our cherry as long as there aren't too many.' But if you put one worm in their cherry or apple and it's just the opposite. Their tolerance is zero."
Doornink says what bothers him most is the science behind the proposed rules.
"You can never make an economic argument against safety. That's not the real question. The question is, do we need to do this to be safe," he said. "I don't think they have sound scientific basis to say this is necessary for the worker's safety."
Doornink and others in the industry note the state requires protective equipment, including masks with charcoal filters, for workers handling certain pesticides, and that the chemicals are safe when used as directed.
They point out the number of complaints to the state Department of Agriculture related to improper handling of pesticides has dropped, from 558 in 1992 to 199 in 2000. The number of violations has declined about 52 percent in the same time period.
Felsot, the toxicologist at WSU, argues the state is taking the wrong approach by requiring blood tests. If a problem is found, it likely will be because the worker didn't have proper protection, he said.
"Going around and taking peoples' blood doesn't make them safer. What makes them safer is more training and making sure they have the personal protective equipment available and indoctrinating that this is for you. That means (the state) inspecting more if they have to," Felsot said.
Concerns also have been raised about whether the cholinesterase tests are reliable.
Dr. Steven Smith, medical director at the U.S. Army's Umatilla chemical-agent-disposal facility in northeastern Oregon, said he tried to find labs to test farmworkers in the Tri-Cities area several years ago when he was director of a private medical facility. The test results were so inaccurate that "a 10 percent or 20 percent (cholinesterase) depression didn't mean anything," he said.
Smith testified about his concerns before the Washington Legislature earlier this year, at the request of the Washington Farm Bureau. Smith said the Army has tests sensitive enough to detect minor cholinesterase depressions and that it's possible for private labs to use similar methods.
Wood, with Labor and Industries, said the agency is aware of Smith's testimony and will use a testing method that's accurate.
He says California has been doing the blood tests for decades, with good results. It is currently the only state that requires cholinesterase tests.
Barry Wilson, a toxicologist at the University of California, Davis, and an expert on cholinesterase testing, considers it "a necessity for every state in the U.S." where organophosphates and carbamates are sprayed on crops.
Rios said he thinks the rules being drafted by Labor and Industries would provide a safety net to catch workers who are not using protective equipment properly, or at all. He wants to see more protections put in place in the future.
"It's just the beginning," he said.Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com