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Sunday, September 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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State agency initiates investigation into farmworkers exposure to chemical drift in Mattawa

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 19, 2020

An aerial spray plane from Fender Air Service dives near the ground and begins a spraying run across a Palouse farm field Wednesday, April 30, 2014. The Washington State Department of Agriculture is investigating an incident at a Mattawa fruit orchard that left some workers with symptoms akin to pesticide poisoning after exposure to an alleged pesticide drift on July 21.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
An aerial spray plane from Fender Air Service dives near the ground and begins a spraying run across a Palouse farm field Wednesday, April 30, 2014. The Washington State Department of Agriculture is investigating an incident at a Mattawa fruit orchard that left some workers with symptoms akin to pesticide poisoning after exposure to an alleged pesticide drift on July 21. (JESSE TINSLEY)

Elvira Molina received an unexpected call July 21. On the other end of the phone was her friend, a longtime Mattawa farmworker who said she had been exposed to pesticides and felt sick.

“I couldn’t hear her, she could barely talk, it was almost like she was having an asthma attack,” said Molina who works in the Wahluke School District. “She was vomiting and she was so weak she couldn’t hold herself up.”

Many workers in a Mattawa fruit orchard displayed symptoms akin to pesticide poisoning after exposure to an alleged pesticide drift from an aerial applicator owned by B&R Aerial Crop Care Inc., which had been spraying a neighboring potato field on July 21.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture began investigating the incident after Sean Gilbert, the owner of Gilbert Orchards where some of the 52 workers exhibited symptoms of pesticide exposure, reported the incident after speaking with the workers.

Gilbert said he was not aware the neighboring field would be sprayed. The pilot wrote in a letter sent to the WSDA that before he began spraying, he had surveyed the adjacent orchards to where he would be spraying and noticed three vehicles on the east edge of an orchard north and west of the spraying site but did not see any workers in the orchard west of the site he would be spraying.

Under state law it is illegal to cause pesticide drift that results in making people ill but growers are not required to notify any adjacent field owners of any plans to spray.

Workers saw a small plane fly directly overhead and were soon overwhelmed by a strong chemical smell left behind, causing some to have strong headaches, numbness, dizziness, sore throats, difficulty breathing, nausea and vomiting, according to records obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

They’d first seen the plane around 7 a.m. and saw it circle around three more times, according to records. A couple of workers reported feeling droplets fall onto them but most only noticed a “disgusting” smell in the air. The pesticides sprayed by the aerial applicator have been identified as Baythroid XL and Onager.

Molina said her friend was driven to the clinic by someone else because she couldn’t drive. She was transferred to another hospital because the small clinic wasn’t equipped to treat her symptoms and her daughter had to ride in the ambulance with her, she said.

It wasn’t until later, when she was back home with orders from the doctor to rest, that she was told she had been “poisoned.”

Three workers were taken to the Mattawa Clinic for treatment, according to the WSDA records, while six other workers expressed intent to go to the clinic in the following days. Medical staff at Wahluke Clinic said they saw up to 15 people go in suspecting chemical exposure in the weeks following the drift incident and suspected others may have gone to the Columbia Basin Health Association Wahluke Clinic.

Some of the workers reported feeling nauseated, extreme headaches, numbness, chest pain and sore throats but did not immediately seek medical attention, according to the records.

Because nobody knew for sure what chemicals had been sprayed, some said they thought they were just having a bad case of allergies while others thought the symptoms would go away. As the days went on some workers said their symptoms worsened.

Pesticide drift affecting farmworkers in the Mattawa area has happened before. In 2014 a group claimed exposure to pesticide drift when Ag Air Flying Services sprayed a neighboring potato field, Jones Produce.

In 2016 some of the workers filed a lawsuit against Jones Produce and Ag Air Flying Services claiming 67 workers had been exposed to harmful chemicals. The workers had described symptoms such as burning throats, stomach pain, nausea and headaches after noticing an awful smell in the air left behind by the crop duster, according to court documents.

Although the workers received money from their lawsuit, they were unsuccessful in efforts to have the pilot’s license revoked. He instead received a nine-day suspension.

These pesticide drift incidents happen with more frequency than they should, said Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services who represented the workers who filed the lawsuit in 2016.

The farmworkers exposed to the pesticide drift in 2014 testified for a 2018 Senate bill that initially would have required growers to notify any neighboring field owners of plans to spray and required all spray records to be submitted to the Department of Health every month.

The bill was amended to create a work group to study and develop recommendations for a notification system and best ways to report pesticide spraying records and was then signed into law, a move Morrison deems as the “death knell” for any real progress to protect farmworkers.

Growers should be notifying neighbors if they plan to spray, Morrison said, that way workers can at least have the knowledge to decide their own fate rather than continue to be completely unaware and unprotected.

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