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Lawsuit Alleges Farmworkers Sickened After Pesticide Exposure

Fleets of specially-equipped planes can spray pesticides on cropland, including this Air Tractor owned by Meyer Agri-Air in Wellsburg, Iowa.
Courtesy of Meyer Agri-Air
Fleets of specially-equipped planes can spray pesticides on cropland, including this Air Tractor owned by Meyer Agri-Air in Wellsburg, Iowa.

In late July 2019, a group of migrant farmworkers from south Texas was working in a cornfield in DeWitt County, Ill., when suddenly a crop duster flew overhead, spraying them with pesticides. Panicked, the crew, which included teenagers and a pregnant woman, ran off the field with clothes doused in pesticides. Their eyes and throats burned and some had trouble breathing.

It happened again two weeks later, this time twice within 30 minutes.

That’s according to a lawsuitfiled on Dec. 2 by Legal Aid Chicago, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the Environmental Law & Policy Center on behalf of the group of farmworkers.

The lawsuit alleges the workers were plainly visible, dressed in neon orange hats and backpacks. Once sprayed, the crew’s employer -- Pioneer Hi-Bred International, an Iowa-based seed company -- “failed to provide adequate decontamination measures,” the lawsuit says.

After the second incident, Pioneer allegedly sent the crew back into the field, only to be sprayed a third time by a pilot employed by Farm Air Inc. The lawsuit states that the workers were lied to by the company, which claimed “the spray had been smoke, and refus[ed] to provide known information about the pesticides involved.”

“There are federal statutes that strictly explain what employers are supposed to do to prevent workers from being exposed to pesticides,” says Lisa Palumbo, Director of the Immigration and Workers’ Rights Practice Group at Legal Aid Chicago. “[They should] have enough decontamination supplies, get medical attention immediately or transport them to a medical facility, not return people to a field.”

As a result of the pesticide exposure, the crew of migrant workers suffered both short and long-term health consequences that are ongoing to this day, according to the lawsuit. Symptoms include “shortness of breath, blurred vision, painful eye and skin irritation, vomiting, headaches, excessive fatigue, and dizziness.” The lawsuit says five children also suffered health consequences after coming into contact with the sprayed workers.

The lawsuit involves claims against both the employer, Pioneer, as well as the commercial applicator, Farm Air Inc. Neither Farm Air Inc. nor Corteva Agriscience, Pioneer’s parent company, responded to a request for comment.

However, in a statementobtained by the Associated Press, Corteva disputed the allegations.

“We believe the claims made are inaccurate, without merit and we intend to vigorously defend against them,” the statement says.

This lawsuit comes on the heels of an investigation by the Illinois Department of Agriculture into the incident, which found a pilot violated the Illinois Pesticide Act. He was fined $750.

“It certainly is a very nominal, minimal fine,” Palumbo says. “The question is, will that create deterrence so that it doesn't happen again?”

Pesticide exposure is an issue in agricultural regions where pesticide use is ubiquitous. However, a Harvest Public Media investigationfound that no agency or department keeps records of how often exposure occurs. Certain states, including California and Iowa, track pesticide exposure, but recordkeeping differs so much state-to-state that comparing the data is impossible.

Illinois’ Department of Agriculture does not track that data at all.

“We need to pay a lot of attention to how public health issues impact essential workers who are working in the agricultural sector,” Palumbo says. “[We need to] create systems and protections that allow them to do the work that they're coming to do, but avoid these really dangerous situations that could not only cause immediate health problems but long term health problems as well.”

Follow Dana on Twitter: @DanaHCronin

Copyright 2020 Harvest Public Media

Dana Cronin is a reporter based in Urbana, Illinois. She covers food and agriculture issues in Illinois for Harvest. Dana started reporting in southern Colorado at member station 91.5 KRCC, where she spent three years writing about everything from agriculture to Colorado’s highest mountain peaks. From there she went to work at her hometown station, KQED, in San Francisco. While there she covered the 2017 North Bay Fires. She spent the last two years at NPR’s headquarters in Washington D.C., producing for shows including Weekend Edition and All Things Considered.