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Farmworker Community Poisoned by Pesticide Drift
February 18, 2000
In early November 1999, mist from a sprinkler application of the soil fumigant metam sodium blew into Earlimart, a small town in California's San Joaquin Valley. About 150 people, nearly all farmworkers, were forced to evacuate their homes. At least 24 people were sent to local hospitals complaining of nausea, vomiting, headaches, burning eyes and shortness of breath.
After their exposure, residents were scared and humiliated when local authorities ordered them to take their clothes off and be sprayed with water by men wearing masks and green splash suits--the hazardous materials team. Only a small plastic tarp was held between the victims and a crowd of at least 100 emergency personnel, television crews and other spectators.
County agriculture officials said it appeared the company, Wilbur-Ellis Co., followed county regulations in applying the pesticide. For three days, the product was applied and then sprayed with water to activate the chemicals. Water reacts with metam sodium to form a gas that kills nematodes, fungi, weed seeds and other organisms in the soil. One of metam sodium's break down products is methyl isothiocyanate (MITC), a powerful irritant of soft tissue such as eyes and lungs.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure to this pesticide can cause acute skin irritation and serious irritation of respiratory mucous membranes, eyes and lungs. EPA lists metam sodium as a probable human carcinogen. The state of California lists the chemical as causing both cancer and birth defects in laboratory animals.
After the incident, it took nine days--and organized community pressure--before a county health team came to Earlimart to treat poisoning victims who could not afford medical care. Residents also had to pressure the local health clinic to bill for services instead of demanding up-front payments to treat poisoning victims. Billing, however, did not resolve the victims' financial burden. Josefina Murgia, a mother of three, received a $6,000 bill for her trip to the hospital. "I don't have that type of money," she said. "Paying the bill would mean my family would go hungry."
This was not the first large-scale problem with metam sodium in California. A mid-1990s train wreck dumped metam sodium into the Sacramento River, killing all fish for miles downstream. A subsequent state study found elevated rates of both new and more severe cases of asthma among residents in the area of the spill. In May 1999, students were evacuated from New Cuyama elementary school near Santa Maria after exposure to the pesticide. A previous poisoning occurred at the New Cuyama school in 1992. In 1996, there were two major incidents in Stockton and Fresno where metam sodium drifted from fields where it was applied resulting in a total of 41 reported probable poisoning cases. From 1991 to 1998, use of metam sodium in California increased from less than 5 million pounds to nearly than 14 million pounds.
A coalition including the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO and community representatives are urging Tulare County to prohibit sprinkler application of metam sodium. They are also calling on the Director of California EPA to re-evaluate use of metam sodium in light of its health effects on farm workers and other rural residents and to conduct a thorough investigation into the full health impacts from the Earlimart community's exposure to this dangerous chemical. California's Department of Pesticide Regulation has recently agreed to move enforcement authority in this case from the county level to the state level where fines for violations may be substantially greater.
Contact: United Farmworkers of America, AFL-CIO; 326 No. Third Street, Porterville, CA 93257; phone (559) 783-8390; fax (559) 783-8393; http://www.ufw.org/earlimart.html.
Sources: "Pesticide mist forces evacuations," Associated Press, Nov. 15, 1999; "Residents sickened by pesticide cloud: Ag officials consider changing rules," Associated Press, Dec. 7, 1999; "California community humiliated in pesticide scare," Associated Press Dec. 9, 1999; "Earlimart residents present county leaders with 183 sickness complaints," Associated Press, Dec. 9, 1999; the Fresno Bee. November 16 and November 18, 1999; the Bakersfield Californian, Nov. 15 and Dec. 8, 1999.