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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fruit, Pesticides and Farmworkers

Air Date: Week of

Gordon Black examines the impact of pesticides on the orchard workers of Washington State, the nation's largest producer of apples. Many farmworkers complain of health hazards from chemicals used in apple orchards, and are pushing for stronger protections from exposure to the pesticides.


CURWOOD: The mild climate of the Pacific Northwest is perfect for trees - not only the big firs but fruit trees as well. And in the last century apples and cherries have become big business in this part of the country. In Washington State alone more than 30,000 people, many of them migrants, work to bring in an apple crop that's worth more than $700 million a year. This makes Washington the leading apple-producing state in the nation, and the fourth biggest employer of farm workers. But this can be risky work, with special dangers from pesticides used in many orchards. Spurred by a recent poisoning incident, farm workers are campaigning for less toxic exposure on the job. Gordon Black has our story.

(Sound of apple harvesting, tractors)

BLACK: Apples thrive in the inland valleys east of the Cascade Mountains. The majority of Washington apples come from the Yakima and Wenatchee valleys. They offer dry winters, hot summers, and plentiful irrigation water from the Columbia River. On a natural terrace 600 feet above the Columbia, Don Heinike tends 345 acres of apples.

(Sound of apple picking)

BLACK: Harvest time brings up to 100 workers to Heinike's Cascade foothills orchard, 180 miles east of Seattle. Although his orchard is bigger than most, Heinike faces problems common to all apple growers.

HEINIKE: We have a lot of pests that we have to be concerned with. We check and see that the mouse population did not develop over the winter and that the gopher population stayed down, and the porcupines didn't get us. You can see there are a number of things that do interfere with our production of fruit.

BLACK: Heinike is a fairly typical apple grower. He relies on chemicals to combat disease and insects such as aphids, coddling moths, and thrips that can damage the tree or eat the fruit. Many of those materials contain ingredients that are highly dangerous to humans. Heinike says none of his workers have ever gotten sick through exposure to chemicals sprayed in his orchard. But across the state, farmworkers are three times more likely to be poisoned on the job than workers in other industries. And orchard workers are twice as likely to be poisoned as other farm employees. Even so, it's hard to prove that a particular chemical made a particular worker sick.

(Sound of conversation in Spanish: "A mi, lo que me pasa . .." )

BLACK: Take the case of Esquel Morphin, a former migrant worker from Mexico, now settled in Washington. Morphin believes he started to get sick six years ago as a result of thinning apple trees that had been sprayed with chemicals he can't name. Morphin says he suffers from headaches and coughs and more serious persistent ailments. His daughter Rosie translates.

ROSIE : My dad, in the long-term sickness, his head hurts a lot. There's like something inside like that is leaking, he saw something leaking (Morphin: "a una amarilla") that is yellow, it's a liquid, and if he's like bending over it leaks out. Like when he gets a flu he gets it for a month or two months. He gets a fever and his bones hurt.

BLACK: Morphin says that doctors he's seen can't conclusively link his illness to agricultural chemical sprays. But it's likely that Morphin came in contact with such brand-name chemicals as Rally, Roundup and Guthion, all commonly used in apple orchards. Even days after Rally and Roundup have been sprayed, their residues can cause skin, eye, nose and throat irritation. And Guthion may bring on stomachaches, dizziness, headaches, and excessive sweating. Officials of the United Farmworkers Union of Washington say some health effects are so common that many orchard workers don't even bother to see a doctor. And, says the union, when they do, doctors frequently dismiss their ailments as allergies. The union wants Washington to join California in monitoring the health of farmworkers, and to impose tougher pesticide standards than are now required by the Federal Government.

FORD: We believe that the EPA standards are clearly inadequate.

BLACK: That's attorney Dan Ford. He's representing orchard workers who're demanding safer standards.

FORD: The EPA admits that their standards overall, they call them generic standards, that apply to all the pesticides across the board are based only on the acute short-term effects. Their generic standards do not even take into account such long-term effects as carcinogenicity or reproductive effects.

BLACK: Ford is suing Washington State on behalf of two apple orchard workers who claim injuries caused by a fungicide named Ziram. They contend that farmworkers should be protected by the tougher chemical safety laws that now cover workers in other industries. The lawsuit and a widely-publicized poisoning of workers have brought new public attention to the conditions orchard workers face. Twenty-two people were hospitalized in July after exposure to Phosdrin, a chemical used to kill aphids on apple trees. They complained of nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath and disorientation. Washington quickly banned Phosdrin. It was the first time a state banned a chemical that remains on the EPA-approved list. The Phosdrin ban appears to be an isolated move by Washington state government, but supporters of the lawsuit aim to push the state for more protection from the daily risks associated with orchard work. The farmworkers union also seeks an outright ban on the most dangerous chemicals. Many growers are reducing their dependence on pesticides. A few are even growing apples organically. But the increasing uncertainty over pesticide use worries many growers. Chris Schlecht is president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, a growers' group.

SCHLECHT: Government needs to sit down, and government means the Congress, the regulatory agencies like EPA and USDA, the Administration in general, Food and Drug Administration, sit down and have a rational pesticide policy for this country.

BLACK: And Schlecht says a rational policy should emphasize the benefits of pesticides in addition to the risks. But in fact, the Clinton Administration is pushing for a new national pesticides policy based purely on a standard of safety. The benefits of a chemical deemed unsafe wouldn't be considered. The new policy would also place greater emphasis on the health of farmworkers. Still, these changes in the regulations are sure to be a tough political fight. Farmworkers face a strong agricultural lobby that is well connected in Congress. For Living on Earth, I'm Gordon Black in Seattle.



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