January 29, 2021
Pesticide Peril: ELPC & Partners Defend Farmworkers in Illinois
After Illinois farmworkers were repeatedly sprayed with pesticides, ELPC lawsuit alleges their employers failed to provide adequate decontamination areas, medical attention, or transportation to a health center or hospital.
Farmworkers are an essential and often overlooked part of the supply chain that takes food from fields to supermarkets to keep us all fed. In addition to being difficult manual labor that must occur outdoors in weather conditions ranging from extreme heat to wildfire smoke, their jobs can also expose them to hazardous doses of pesticides.
In the summer of 2019, a group of farmworkers in Illinois were sprayed with pesticides, and their healthcare needs were ignored by their employers. In response to this tragedy, ELPC is partnering with Legal Aid Chicago and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid to represent these farmworkers and their families in a lawsuit filed in the Federal District Court for the Central District of Illinois in December 2020.
This blog post explains how pesticides are regulated, what the lawsuit alleges, and opportunities to better protect people from these hazards in the future.
How does the Law Protect Farmworkers?
There are a number of federal statutes and regulations that limit pesticide use in ways designed to protect agricultural workers. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) requires that before a pesticide can be legally used in the U.S., it must be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). When EPA registers a pesticide, it creates a safety label specific to that pesticide, which lists use restrictions. Using any pesticide in violation of its labelling restrictions is illegal, as is using the pesticide in a manner that causes it to contact people.
EPA’s Application Exclusion Zone regulation, which became effective in 2018, establishes that when pesticides are aerially sprayed, the applicator must ensure that there are no people within a 100-foot radius of the spray nozzle and must stop pesticide application if anyone enters that “exclusion zone.” The labels for most pesticides specify a “restricted entry period”—an interval of time (such as 12 hours) during which no one is supposed to enter a field after it has been sprayed with pesticides.
EPA has also issued a set of regulations known as the Worker Protection Standards to further protect farmworkers from harmful pesticide exposures. These regulations set requirements for agricultural employers, including having a minimum amount of water on hand for decontamination if people come into contact with pesticides, instructing workers on proper decontamination, and informing them of the location of the nearest hospital if contact with pesticides occurs.
What does the lawsuit allege?
In the summer of 2019, a group of Texas residents were hired to detassel corn in central Illinois. In this routine part of corn production, workers walk through a field and remove the “tassel” from atop each stalk of corn to prevent cross-pollination.
In July of that summer, a helicopter flew over the field where the workers were detasselling, spraying them with pesticides, even though they were clearly visible in neon orange hats and backpacks. In August, an airplane flew over another field where they labored and sprayed the workers with pesticides. After workers fled the field in an effort to escape the pesticides, supervisors ordered them back onto the field a mere 15 minutes later, and shortly thereafter the plane flew over a second time, spraying them again. Each time that the workers were sprayed, their employers failed to provide adequate decontamination areas, medical attention, or transportation to a health center or hospital.
Many workers experienced immediate symptoms from the pesticide exposure, including shortness of breath, blurred vision, painful eye and skin irritation, vomiting, headaches, excessive fatigue, and dizziness, and some workers continue to experience ongoing symptoms.
Many workers experienced immediate symptoms from the pesticide exposure, including shortness of breath, blurred vision, painful eye and skin irritation, vomiting, headaches, excessive fatigue, and dizziness, and some workers continue to experience ongoing symptoms. The workers exposed to pesticides include teenagers and a pregnant woman. Some children of workers were exposed to pesticides through contact with their parents’ contaminated clothing.
The workers’ lawsuit alleges that their employers and the companies that applied the pesticides committed assault and battery against them. It also alleges that their employers violated the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act by, among other things, violating field sanitation standards, failing to disclose workers’ compensation information, failing to pay wages when due, and violating the Worker Protection Standards. ELPC will continue to work with our partners to fight for our clients, who should not have been exposed to such hazards in the first place and who now deserve justice.
How can we keep workers safer in the future?
In this case, the regulations failed to work as intended to protect farmworkers, but there are also many opportunities to create better regulations and better enforce the existing regulations to protect workers in the future. For example, there is currently no clear federal or Illinois state requirement for either agricultural employers or pesticide applicators to report when workers have been accidentally exposed to pesticides. We need consistent records to identify patterns of misbehavior and hold companies accountable for repeated violations.
Additionally, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which enforces violations of FIFRA and state pesticide safety laws that occur within Illinois, often issues very low fines for violations. For example, for a violation of a pesticide’s labeling requirements that results in contact with a person who experiences symptoms lasting three days or more, the Department of Agriculture issues a fine of only $750, which amounts to a slap on the wrist. Stronger deterrents, such as higher fines, would help ensure that applicators and agricultural employers abide by existing regulations.
Under the Trump administration, the EPA issued a final rule weakening and complicating its existing Application Exclusion Zone regulation. The new rule carves out exceptions to that exclusion zone, including for people who are within 100 feet of the point of application, but are on property adjacent to the property being sprayed. The Biden administration listed this rule creating exceptions to the exclusion zone in an Inauguration Day press release as one it will review and potentially revise or rescind. Pesticide spray doesn’t obey property lines, and the original, clear exclusion zone without exceptions based on property ownership should be reinstated.
While the essential labor of farmworkers is often invisible to end consumers, it is important that the harms that these workers risk from pesticide exposure are not similarly ignored. Everyone deserves clean air and a safe, healthy work environment. Our communities and futures depend on it.