A recent pesticide-drift incident involving 13 farmworkers is just one of a growing number of cases, say officials with the Fresno County Department of Agriculture.
Stace Leoni, deputy county agriculture commissioner, attributes the uptick in cases to an increased awareness about pesticide exposure, along with more agencies and people who are reporting incidents.
“More people are paying more attention to the issue, and they know who to call,” Leoni said.
The number of cases the county has investigated has climbed over the last several years. In 2012 the number of completed investigations was 77, with two of those cases classified as priorities. In 2014 county officials completed 116 investigations, including three priority cases.
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Priority is defined by one of several criteria, including five or more people affected, one person was admitted to the hospital or monetary loss.
Last year 79 investigations were closed, with 16 of those being priority cases. But investigators have 30-plus cases reported in 2015 that are still being examined, Leoni said. And only three months into the year the county has already opened 17 investigations, with four of those being priorities. The county investigates pesticide cases involving farming, businesses and residential use.
Leoni said that the investigations can take weeks, if not months, to complete.
“There are a lot of pieces that we have to collect,” Leoni said.
The lack of timeliness of the county’s investigations were part of the reason the United Farm Workers union staged a protest outside the agriculture commissioner’s office Tuesday. The union rally was in support of 13 workers from the Reedley-based Gerawan Farming company who were accidentally sprayed Feb. 22 by a worker employed by a neighboring almond grower. The worker, a non-Gerawan employee, was spraying the almond orchard near Kerman with a combination of chemicals, including Regalia, a plant extract used by organic growers to treat fungal diseases.
The Gerawan workers complained of headaches or eye irritation, but none required hospitalization.
“We want this investigation done in an efficient manner,” said Armando Elenes, UFW national vice president.
Gerawan’s attorney David Schwarz said the company reported the incident, which was caused by a different grower, to the county commissioner within minutes of it happening.
“And simultaneously we contacted medical providers, and the workers were given an examination,” Schwarz said.
Schwarz said that despite the union’s concerns, he is confident the investigation will be handled appropriately.