PANNA: Action Alert: Workers Poisoned in Colombia
Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
On November 25, 2003, approximately 200 Colombian flower workers were poisoned at Flores Aposentos north of Bogotá. The workers, primarily women, were taken by ambulance from the worksite in Sopó to five surrounding hospitals, all with symptoms consistent with pesticide poisoning. Untraflores, a Colombian labor organization, reports that some workers were ill for days, and has called on people to contact Colombian officials asking for more information on the causes of the poisoning, and improved worker protections.
The affected workers experienced symptoms such as strong headaches, nausea, swelling, rashes, diarrhea, and sores inside and around the mouth shortly after arriving to work. Untraflores reported that the company did not seek medical help for the workers until later in the morning, when dozens of workers began fainting. Twenty ambulances carried workers to a hospital in Sopó, as well as hospitals in three surrounding towns and a clinic in Bogotá.
A childcare facility near the Flores Aposentos facility was also evacuated. Approximately sixty children were waiting to be picked up by their parents in front of the center as the Flores Aposentos workers were carried away in ambulances.
The pesticide involved in the poisoning has not been disclosed. Colombian news sources speculated on the causes of the accident, which remain unexplained. Untraflores reported a large pesticide application had taken place the evening before and speculated that the morning sun may have caused chemicals to volatilize. Workers say the company called workers back to work later in the day on November 25, despite a strong chemical smell in the greenhouses.
Within days of the poisoning, Colombian health officials announced an investigation. Untraflores has asked people to contact Colombian officials, asking for public information on the chemicals involved and the long-term consequences to the workers. PANNA has joined the International Labor Rights Fund to circulate the Untraflores appeal.
Workers are especially vulnerable to pesticide poisoning in enclosed greenhouses where multiple exposures through inhalation, skin and eyes are more likely to occur. Flower production, within and outside of greenhouses is done intensively, with relatively large amounts of pesticides at different stages of production and in preparation for shipment. One study of Costa Rican fern and flower farms reported over 50% of respondents experiencing at least one symptom of pesticide exposure--headache, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, skin eruptions, or fainting. Floriculture uses many insecticides, including organophosphate insecticides designed to interfere with nerve function. Studies have reported elevated risks of Parkinson's among horticultural workers, one study of greenhouse workers reported nearly 60% manifesting nervous system symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, hand trembling and blurred vision. Reproductive problems have also been noted, including a study in Colombia reporting female floriculture workers with reduced ability to become pregnant, and sperm concentrations 40% lower in males working more than ten years in floriculture.
The company involved in the Colombian poisoning has also been criticized by labor groups for underpaying workers. Flores Aposentos uses a system known as the "little school" in which they pay new workers a reduced salary for the first month (less than 100,000 pesos, or US $37) with the explanation that workers are gaining skills. At month's end, the company selects only a few workers to continue, taking advantage of thousands of workers each year.
To contact Colombian health officials via fax:
Please also send a copy to Untraflores via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or via general mail to: Cra. 2 Nº 6 A 25, Barrio Cartagenita, Facatativa, Colombia.
A sample letter and more information are available on the International Labor Rights Fund website: http://www.laborrights.org/
Note: PANNA recently launched an Online Diagnostic Tool to assist health care providers in the diagnosis and identification of pesticide related illness. We believe it can be a valuable part of a first response to pesticide poisoning incidents. Visit our database site at http://www.pesticideinfo.org to see the Online Diagnostic Tool.
Sources: Ultraflores, Dec. 3, 2003, Demand an investigation of the poisoning of hundreds of flower workers in Colombia, http://www.untraflores.netfirms.com; El Tiempo, Nov 22, 2003, http://eltiempo.terra.com.co/; PANUPS, Floriculture: Pesticides, Worker Health & Codes of Conduct, June 12, 2002, http://www.panna.org/resources/panups/panup_20020612.dv.html; "The Bloom on the Rose, Looking Into the Floriculture Industry", Focus, Environmental Health Perspectives, Journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, May 2002, Vol. 110, #5.
PANUPS is a weekly email news service providing resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don't always get coverage by the mainstream media. It's produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.