During a sunny week last April, Luis Gonzalez, a farmworker in Delray Beach, Fla., sprayed parathion, a pesticide, on the field of J&N Farms.
Gonzalez felt dizzy that week. He lost his appetite and was having a hard time breathing. A doctor prescribed duracillin for respiratory problem and periactin tablets for his loss of appetite.
Back on the job the following Monday, Gonzales was found face down berind the sprayer, unconscious and foaming at the mouth. He died a few weeks later, leaving two sons and a widow, Felipa, who cannot read or write.
The Gonzalez case, presented to a House Commerce subcommittee this week, is one of thousands of farmworker pesticide poisonings each year. Exactly how many no one knows, because the government has not kept track. And, farmworker lawyers charge, the government has done little to solve the problem.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which has jurisdicton over pesticides, "has basically abdicated the responsibility for worker safety regulation," said Ralph Lightstone of California Rural Legal Assistance. "They do not protect farmworkers."
EPA Assistant Administrator Steven Jellinek said yesterday he agrees that EPA's regulations may be too weak. He said the agency will undertake "a major review" of the program.
"EPA's enforcement of pesticide use has not been terribly aggressive," Jellinek said. "Standards were set in 1973, and we're concerned whether they're adequate. We're going to completely review the whole thing."
Farmworker advocates are skeptical. In the summer of 1969, then-senator Walter F. Mondale held hearings on "Pesticides and the Farworker," publicizing deaths and acute poisionings, lack of information on chronic effects, failure of doctors to diagnose and treat poisonings, inadequate government regulations and lack of enforcement.
"The primary difference between then and now," Lightstone testified, "is that the problem has become worse." Pesticide use has more than doubled. The banning of a handful of pesticides, notably DDT and certain chlorinated hydrocarbons, has shifted sales to more toxic compounds.
"Acute poisonings remain largely uncounted. Chronic poisonings remain undiagnosed," he said.
Farmworker groups petitioned the EPA in April to adopt a mandatory pesticide illness reporting system and to undertake health studies on farmworkers.
In California, the only state that tries to keep track, about 1,500 pesticide poisonings are reported a year, but state officials say many go unreported. The disease rate for agricultural workers is three times higher than that of industrial workers, state figures show.
EPA standards allow workers to reenter pesticide-sprayed fields before it is safe, Lightsone charged. The longest reentry interval EPA sets is 48 hours. California requires a 30-to-60-day interval for some chemicals, a difference EPA says may be justified by climate and soil conditions.
Lightstone wants to transfer responsibility for farmworker protection to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA, he said, has much stricter standards.
For example, on the same pesticide, DBCP, which has been shown to cause sterility in factory workers, OSHA has set an inhalaton standard of one part per billion. EPA, while it may eventually ban the chemical, does not set such standards, although the pesticide is as easily breathed in the field as in the factory.
Jellinek said EPA has no legal authority to do so and that it would be technically impossible to measure the amount of pesticide in the air of each field.
Also, while OSHA requires that impermeable clothing always be worn around DBCP, EPA does not require such clothing when the pesticide is applied. Nor does EPA require medical surveillance of applicators, as OSHA does for factory workers, Lightstone said.
The DBCP case is typical of hundreds of pesticides, he added.
Also, he said, EPA relies on labels to warn people, "but a study of 1,400 farmworkers by the University of California revealed that only 14.5 percent could understand what was on the label."