Protests reach Fresno County ag commissioner’s office as details emerge in pesticide exposures

Addilene Solorio, who recently graduated from high school, was new to her job last week at a vineyard outside Dinuba. She thought nothing of a strange odor the morning of June 18.

But, she said, her more experienced co-workers told her it was the smell of poison.

Soon enough, workers began feeling ill: some vomiting, others falling from nausea.

Earlier, workers said they had tried to stop a tractor from continuing its pesticide spraying route along an orchard. The winds around 10 a.m. that day were sending the pesticide to the vineyard in the direction of 18-year-old Solorio, her father and dozens of other workers.

This week, a similar incident happened at a nectarine farm south of Kerman, leaving dozens of workers exposed to chemicals from pesticides. At least three people were hospitalized in each incident. Around 130 workers were exposed in the two cases.

On Friday, members from the United Farm Workers union and other activist groups protested outside the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s office to call attention to the exposures. With claims that there is “inherent bias” within county ag commission offices, the protesters demanded that Fresno County conduct a thorough investigation of the Kerman case.

“They represent the ag community but yet they are also investigating pesticide exposure incidents,” said Armando Elenes, secretary treasurer with the UFW. “We are demanding that they do an impartial investigation.”

Protesters descended onto the parking lot of the Fresno County Agriculture Commission’s office on June 28, 2019, after dozens of farm workers were exposed to chemicals in two incidents in the region. CRESENCIO RODRIGUEZ-DELGADO

Elenes and dozens of others stood in front of the ag commissioner’s office as security officers guarded the entrance and escorted two visitors who had arrived during the protest. The workers, in Spanish, chanted “We are workers, not animals” and “What would you do if this was your family?”

Ag commissioner response

Rusty Lantsberger, assistant Fresno County agricultural commissioner, said the investigation is underway and inspectors were at the Fresno County farm again on Friday. He responded to the protester claims that the commissioner’s office is biased by saying there are multiple levels to the investigation and different offices that look at the findings. If anyone has concerns or disputes with the findings, they can challenge the investigation, he said.

“All of our investigations we conduct are fair,” Lantsberger said.

The pesticides used in Thursday’s incident – Zylo insecticide, Nealta miticide and spray oil – are considered “caution materials.” Lantsberger said that means they have lower toxicity but could still cause health effects depending on the exposure. Additionally, some chemicals, like the ones sprayed on Thursday, do not require a notice be given before spraying while other chemicals do.

The county office is reviewing pesticide records as well as looking into whether other spraying was happening in the area at the same time. A representative of the Gerawan Farming company, which owns the farm, told The Bee that company officials were never given a notice of spraying.

Dinuba incident leaves questions

At the protest, the 18-year-old Solorio said she is nervous for her health from the incident at the vineyard near Dinuba. Officials from the Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner office could not be reached for comment.

“We want them to know when to do the pesticides. Not when we’re working. That’s a big no,” Solorio said. “If that’s going to happen, they should let us know ... so we won’t go work and this would not be happening.”

Solorio’s father, Mardonio Solorio, spoke to reporters and said he’s had a persistent cough and pain in his lungs since the pesticide incident at the farm near Dinuba. His daughter said her father recently coughed up blood.

The Solorios said there was panic the morning of June 18 at the Dinuba-area vineyard. Workers “were even saying their last goodbyes to their families,” the younger Solorio said. She added that a woman was shaking and filled two bags with vomit.

The older Solorio said Friday that his doctor in Reedley told him his symptoms could be related to the pesticide. Foremen at the vineyard reportedly told workers the heat may have also contributed to their symptoms. But the Solorios pin the blame solely on the pesticides.

“I’ve never suffered this. I have spent years working in the fields ... I’ve never felt this way,” the older Solorio said in Spanish as the protesters gathered in a circle to hear him speak.

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado: 559-441-6304, @cres_guez

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Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a journalist at The Fresno Bee. He covers the people and places experiencing economic and social inequity for The California Divide media collaboration. He grew up in the southern San Joaquin Valley and has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Fresno State.