Tuesday, August 14, 2007

News Article

From the Bradenton Herald, Aug. 11, 2007. The more things change...
Farmworkers tell EPA about chemicals

It was the end of a long day in 2004, and Olga was tired.
So the farmworker sat down in the middle of a field layered in plastic at one of the expansive farms outside Bradenton.

Later, her buttocks tingled. Hoping to ease the burn, she showered, but the water only made it worse, popping up blisters everywhere that began to burst and form again.

Olga, who is in the country illegally and did not want her last name used, went to a local hospital, where a doctor asked her what chemical she had worked with that day.

But she didn't know - all she knew was she was supposed to walk behind the truck that sprayed the "gas," as Olga called it.

After a night in the hospital, Olga, who did similar work for six years in and around Arcadia and Myakka City, was left with a hospital bill because of her second- and third-degree chemical burns. Her empl- oyer refused to pay.

Olga's story was one of many heard Friday by Environmental Protection Agency representatives visiting Wim- auma. The agency is proposing restrictions on fumigant use, including methyl bromide, which burned Olga.

"They did nothing to tell us the chemicals were dangerous," she said in Spanish, breaking down into tears. "And I have two sons and no husband. They didn't give me a check, nothing."

Fumigants are sprayed onto fields followed by a layer of plastic. A farmworker often drives a truck that sprays the chemical, followed by another farmworker who helps lay out the plastic and finally others who cut the plastic.

Included in the EPA's proposal are ways to restrict farmworker exposure, such as the timing of application, providing air-purifying respirators, use of machines to do the job and other methods.

Farmers in June spoke to EPA officials at a Fort Myers meeting, as part of the same effort by the agency to hear public comment on its proposal.

Growers there said restricting such fumigants would kill the agriculture industry in Florida, and if applied correctly, there is no harm, according to Herald archives.

Comments are being heard by EPA officials until Sept. 3, and a final decision is expected in late November.

"We don't want to see agriculture end in Florida," said Jeannie Economos, with The Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc. "We just want to see agriculture where the workers' health is as important as the environment and as important as the consumers."

Farmworker advocate groups say workers are not adequately educated on the dangers of fumigants, especially methyl bromide. They say workers are not trained and often do not receive protective gear.

Those protections need to be enforced, farmworker advocates say, or there should be a complete ban on methyl bromide.

"They are all being directly exposed to this toxic chemical," said Soli Mercado, a staff attorney with Florida Rural Legal Services. "What's the point of making all these regulations and they're not being followed?"

Olga and other farmworkers said Friday they received little to no training on fumigants.

"You don't see the farmer out there," said James Brown, with Farmworkers Self-Help Inc. "He's, in a lot of cases, not even monitoring if it's safe."

Bertin Cruz, a former farmworker in the Immokalee area, said he worked for eight to 10 years in tomato fields laying plastic treated with chemicals.

He complained to a supervisor one day, Cruz said, that he wasn't feeling good. Cruz said the supervisor asked him, "Are you a man? Because men just take it."

When inspectors came to the field, Cruz said, workers were told to leave for hours until the inspector left.

"It's incredible," he told EPA officials in Spanish.

Pedro Lopez currently works near Immokalee cutting plastic layers. He said training for the job consisted of making sure to wear glasses and wash your hands before eating.

"When the gas is too strong or the heat gets to 95 degrees, it gets worse," he said in Spanish.

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