Chemical exposures in California’s vast cropland spark fear for growers and workers

Many nights this summer Mardonio Solorio woke up coughing blood and gasping for air.

The 45-year-old Fresno man felt like his lungs were burning.

Solorio’s wife fixed home remedies she learned how to prepare in their native Mexico. She prayed. She lit candles and placed them at the foot of a Virgin Mary statue in their southeast Fresno apartment.

Nothing worked.

Finally, after days of pain, Solorio said a doctor told him his health problems were caused by Solorio’s exposure to chemicals found in pesticides.

Solorio, who now works a construction job, was among dozens of workers at a Tulare County vineyard on June 18 who were exposed to a chemical used in pesticides. The chemical was sprayed at a nearby peach orchard owned by Peters Fruit Farms. Wind carried the chemical across the trees to the field where Solorio and others worked.

Ten out of about 54 workers sought medical attention.

No penalties have been issued and the investigation now is in the hands of the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office. It’s the first such case reported this year in the county.

But the large-scale exposure, followed by another in Fresno County a week later, alarmed the farm community and opened old divisions over pesticide use and worker protections in the San Joaquin Valley.

Workers at risk

A week after the exposure in June, the second similar incident was reported near Kerman. That incident – which exposed about 63 workers – remains under investigation by the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.

Altogether, more than 100 farmworkers were exposed to pesticides between both incidents. Some later reported illnesses.

Solorio said he plans to sue the companies involved – his contractor Grapeman Labor, Inc. and the company responsible for the spraying, Peters Fruit Farms. A second contractor company, Rojim, Inc., also employed workers that were exposed.

A report from the Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office concluded both contractors at the Tulare County vineyard violated worker-training and emergency medical care rules. The commissioner’s office said the companies also failed to keep sufficient records and employees were not trained by qualified instructors.

The scene of a decontamination process following a pesticide exposure at a vineyard in Tulare County on June 18, 2019. SPECIAL TO THE BEE

The commissioner’s office also said Peters Fruit Farms violated spraying rules because the pesticide was applied when there was a possibility to contaminate areas beyond the peach farm. The workers say they weren’t given notice before spraying.

Officials for Grapeman Labor, Inc. did not respond to requests for comment. An official with Peters Fruit Farms declined to comment, as did workers for Holland Farms, another company tied to the Fresno County incident. Rojim, Inc. the second contractor in Tulare County, could not be reached for comment.

‘Very worrying’

When the wind pushed the pesticide toward the Tulare County vineyard, panicked workers feared for their lives.

One woman vomited and said what she believed were her final goodbyes to family, according to witnesses.

“What happened is something that is very worrying,” Solorio said. “You get scared and think, ‘How many of us here will die?’”

Mardonio Solorio, one of nearly 60 farm workers who were exposed to chemicals near a Dinuba vineyard, holds up a tag he wore hanging from his neck outlining his degree of exposure for medical personnel. Photographed Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Emergency responders assigned each worker a paper label designating the possible severity of exposure each faced. Solorio and his daughter were deemed minor. A few were considered in immediate risk of injury and were rushed to nearby hospitals.

Months later, Solorio still uses the medicine prescribed by the company doctor in Reedley. He said he feels better now but fears his injuries are permanent.

“I was even more scared. When it’s pesticides, people say you won’t heal. You can get cancer or other illnesses,” he said. “That’s when I became more scared.”

Greg Loarie, staff attorney for Earthjustice, a national environmental law advocacy organization, said worker anxieties should be taken seriously.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that pesticide regulation is a matter of life and death,” Loarie said. “It is absolutely unacceptable that farmworkers are expected to accept this risk.”

Pesticides a longtime concern

In 2017, 32 million pounds of pesticides were unloaded onto Fresno County crops and 19 million pounds were used in Tulare County. Fresno County uses the greatest amount of pesticide out of all California counties, according to the California Department of Pesticide Regulations.

In California, safety policy enforcement is left up to the counties and an understanding exists in writing that the California Department of Public Health, the Department of Pesticide Regulation and county agriculture commissions all have a level of responsibility in dealing with potential effects of pesticides.

The regional EPA office confirmed it is aware of the Valley incidents and said officials are working with the Department of Pesticide Regulation. Local ag commissioners are discussing stepping up awareness for growers and field workers following the incidents.

A vineyard along Avenue 408 at Road 56 near Dinuba, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. Around 60 farm worklers were exposed to chemicals due to overspray as a peach orchard was sprayed across the road on June 18. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Since 2017, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office has reviewed, on average, about five pesticide-related cases per year.

Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright said his office is working on improving investigations. Tulare County District Attorney Stuart Anderson said the recent pesticide case was the only one received this year.

The Department of Pesticide Regulation in 2015 identified 1,187 cases involving pesticide exposure statewide, a nearly 10% increase since 2014. Thirty-three percent of all cases were associated with agriculture.

The department’s 2016 pesticide report has not yet been published.

Education vs. regulation?

Tom Tucker, Tulare County ag commissioner, said farmers don’t want more regulations.

“When word like this gets out, everybody becomes extra aware,” Tucker said. “We can use that as a positive motivation for everybody to learn from. I am sending my staff and my supervisors to meetings to use this as a frame of reference or an example on how to prevent (pesticide drift).”

Tucker attended a meeting of officials from multiple counties across the region to discuss recent events.

Some farming officials plan to introduce the “Spray Safe” program in Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties, an educational program that runs on a volunteer basis, according to Ruthann Anderson, president of California Association of Pest Control Advisers.

Anderson said the program teaches workers how to spray responsibly. Its rollout is planned in the coming months. The program already is in place in at least 16 counties, Anderson said.

Melissa Cregan, Fresno County ag commissioner, said pesticides are used thousands of times each year and rarely sicken workers. She said more enforcement isn’t the answer. She supports the “Spray Safe” workshop as an educational tool promoting worker safety that reminds growers of the rules already in place to prevent harm.

However, the program has no enforcement mechanism and runs on a volunteer basis.

Cregan said improving communication and education would be more effective than additional governmental regulations. She said the goal is to reduce the number of incidents.

“None of this changes how we do our jobs when an incident occurs,” Cregan said. “We still have all of our requirements, mandates and authorities.”

Laorie, the Earthjustice attorney, said the program has good intentions, but said it shouldn’t be a substitute for stricter enforcement.

Agriculture officials generally push back against the idea of reducing pesticide use, saying the chemicals are needed to keep food safe, but they say they do recognize the fears.

“There is always going to be risk when you have people and activities that could be detrimental to people,” Cregan said. “The world is a risk. All we can do is try to minimize these risks.”

Laorie called Cregan’s remarks “dismissive” and said farmworkers shouldn’t be forced to simply accept the risk of chemical exposure. “I agree that at some level there’s probably no amount of training and no amount of protective gear that is going to work all the time,” he said. “The bottom line is that we know how to grow food without resorting to these chemicals.”

But while investigations continue and authorities hash out future solutions, Solorio said workers remain vulnerable.

He said he’s looking out for those who are afraid to speak out and has traveled with the United Farmworkers Union to Sacramento to share his concerns with lawmakers.

“We risk our lives,” Solorio said. “We wake up fine in the morning to go to work, but we don’t know if we’ll make it back home alive.”

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.