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VIDEO: Migrant Farmworkers May Have Been Sickened by Toxic Pesticide Greenlighted by EPA Under Trump

Web ExclusiveMay 19, 2017
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This week Amy Goodman is on tour in California, where earlier this month more than 50 farmworkers in California were exposed to a highly toxic pesticide after it was greenlighted by the EPA in one of the agency’s first decisions since Trump took office. About an hour after workers arrived for their shift at Dan Andrews Farms in Bakersfield, California, many began to exhibit symptoms of vomiting and nausea. At least one person fainted. Observers suspect the source was drift from a nearby orchard that was sprayed the night before with Vulcan, a pesticide containing the known neurotoxin chlorpyrifos, a product of Dow Chemical Company. Last year, the EPA was on the verge of banning chlorpyrifos, but under EPA administrator Scott Pruitt the agency unexpectedly reversed course and approved its use. We are joined by Eriberto Fernandez, the civic participation and policy coordinator with United Farm Workers Foundation, and Kristin Schafer, program and policy director for Pesticide Action Network North America, which petitioned the EPA to ban the use of chlorpyrifos.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Earlier this month, more than 50 farmworkers here in California were exposed to a highly toxic pesticide, whose use was recently greenlighted by the EPA in one of the agency’s first decisions since Donald Trump took office. About an hour after workers arrived for their shift at Dan Andrews Farms in Bakersfield, California, many began to exhibit symptoms of vomiting and nausea. At least one person fainted. Observers suspect the source was drift from a nearby orchard that was sprayed the night before with Vulcan, a pesticide containing the known neurotoxin chlorpyrifos. This is Efron Zavalza, a supervisor and food safety specialist with Dan Andrews Farms, speaking with local station KGET.

EFRON ZAVALZA: We started getting like an odor, pesticide odor, coming in from the mandarin orchard west of our field. I’m not pointing fingers, saying that was done incorrectly. It’s just an unfortunate thing, the way it was drifted. The wind came, pushed everything east, and, you know, we were caught in the path.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, the EPA was on the verge of banning chlorpyrifos, a product of Dow Chemical Company. But under EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency unexpectedly reversed course and approved its use. Multiple studies have found the pesticide causes both immediate symptoms, like vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, as well as long-term damage in children, such as developmental delays and higher rates of autism.

Dow Chemical had asked the Trump administration to reject the findings of government scientists as they prepared a report on how pesticides known as organophosphates threaten human health and thousands of critically endangered species. Organophosphates were originally derived from a nerve agent developed in Nazi Germany. Dow Chemical also paid a million dollars to underwrite Donald Trump’s January inauguration, and Dow CEO Andrew Liveris was tapped by President Trump to head the White House’s American Manufacturing Council.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests at the University of California, Berkeley, TV studios. Eriberto Fernandez is the civic participation and policy coordinator with United Farm Workers Foundation. He himself is the son of farmworkers, was a child farmworker himself. And Kristin Schafer is the program and policy director for Pesticide Action Network North America, which petitioned the EPA to ban the use of chlorpyrifos.

Let’s start right now with Kristin Schafer. Talk about what chlorpyrifos is.

KRISTIN SCHAFER: Yeah, good morning. So, chlorpyrifos, as you mentioned, is a neurotoxic insecticide. It’s one of the most widely used insecticides in the country. Here in California, over a million pounds are used every year on a wide range of fruits and vegetables. So, it is well known to be neurotoxic. When we filed our petition back in 2007, the chemical had already been banned from home use, because back in 2001 there was enough evidence that showed that it was harmful to children, and particularly harmful to children’s developing brains. So there’s dozens and dozens of studies documenting the neurodevelopmental harm caused by low-dose exposures. Very low doses can cause these harms.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, but explain. It was banned for consumer use but allowed for agricultural use. Explain the difference.

KRISTIN SCHAFER: That’s exactly right. So, it was banned for use in homes. It used to be in-home products that you could use in your garden and in your house to control insects. So, those were pulled from shelves back in 2001, but uses in agriculture were allowed to continue, and at fairly high rates around the country. Around 8 million pounds around the country continue to be used.

So that’s exactly why we filed a citizen legal petition in 2007 with our partners at NRDC and working with the lawyers at Earthjustice, basically asking EPA to expand the ban of chlorpyrifos to agricultural uses, because it’s putting, you know, children in rural communities, as well as farmworkers and consumers, at risk, because even at the levels found on food residues, science now shows that can be harmful. So, yeah, it—part of the reason that we’ve been focusing on this is that the evidence is so very clear, and it’s been so long that it’s taken the EPA to take action to pull this from the market in agriculture.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip of Donald Trump signing an executive order on regulatory reform in February. Among the CEOs in the room was Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Every regulation should have to pass a simple test: Does it make life better or safer for American workers or consumers? If the answer is no, we will be getting rid of it and rid of it quickly. … Andrew, I’d like to thank you for initially getting the group together.

ANDREW LIVERIS: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. President. My honor.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Really a fantastic job you’ve done.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Should I give this pen to Andrew? Dow Chemical. Should I? I think maybe. Right?

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have President Trump saying, “Should I give this pen”—one of the signing pens—”to Andrew?” He’s the CEO of Dow Chemical, Andrew Liveris. Kristin Schafer, explain Dow’s connection to this drug and the significance of this CEO being in the room.

KRISTIN SCHAFER: Yeah, so Dow is the main producer of chlorpyrifos, and they have fought long and hard to keep it on the market. They’ve lobbied heavily throughout the process and tried to slow any action that EPA has taken. We’ve actually just last week filed another complaint with—a legal complaint with EPA, because we’ve been—had a FOIA request in now for over a year, asking for correspondence between Dow and EPA. So, there—we’re quite sure there’s very clear evidence that there’s been both behind-the-scenes lobbying and, you know, lots of pressure from Dow to keep this on the market. It’s a very profitable chemical for them.

I think, clearly, the connection, the corporate buddy connection, with this administration goes a long way to explain this decision that was taken at the end of March. So, basically, what happened in terms of the decision that EPA, Scott Pruitt—EPA administrator Scott Pruitt released on March 29th, that was in response to a court-ordered deadline that was triggered from our suit back in 2007. We had to go back to court several times, because EPA was delaying so much—again, likely pressure from Dow that was slowing the process. So, but because of our ongoing legal battle, EPA had actually, over the last year and a half, moved forward and recommended that chlorpyrifos be pulled from the market for all—all food uses in agriculture. So, they had built a very convincing scientific case. They had found in their health risk assessment in last fall that infants were exposed at 140 times levels that could be considered safe. So, EPA itself had, you know, basically justified and gone through all the hoops that you need to go through for the regulatory process to pull this chemical from the market.

What happened in March is that the Pruitt administration, the Pruitt EPA, said, “Well, no, we’re actually not going to take any action on this chemical until 2022 at the earliest.” And we immediately took them back to court, basically because they—it can’t make that decision without justifying it. And so, they basically are going against their own scientific—you know, the recommendations of EPA scientists and a really strong scientific case that had been built over the last couple of years, and completely reversing course. So, again, with—the clip that you showed illustrates very clearly the—you know, the buddy-buddy relationship that this administration has with Dow Chemical. And we’re quite convinced that there’s been behind-the-scenes pressure and that Pruitt, you know, gave Dow exactly what they were asking for.

AMY GOODMAN: Eriberto Fernandez, you’re the son of migrant workers, of farmworkers. You, yourself, were a child farmworker. Can you talk about what happened earlier this month in Bakersfield when over a dozen farmworkers got sick?

ERIBERTO FERNANDEZ: Sure. And thank you, Amy, for having us on your show.

It was on May the 5th, early at 6:00 a.m. in the morning, when farmworkers—these are cabbage harvesters out of Taft, California. They were harvesting. And an hour into their harvest, a lot of the workers, especially the pickers, were smelling a strong odor coming from a nearby farm. It wasn’t until very long when some other workers started to feel nauseous. Some started vomiting right there on the field. Others, you know, one or two, fainted. You know, the workers quickly walked off the field. And it wasn’t until an hour later that paramedics and the fire department arrived.

You know, what’s really unfortunate about this case is that so many workers left the field when the paramedics arrived, when the fire department arrived, simply because—as many farmworkers still today don’t receive training or the proper—the proper training on what to do in this type of incident. We have so many cases, and, unfortunately, so many still go unreported, throughout California and throughout the rest of the country, where farmworkers are exposed either directly from a spray or through a drift or out in the community somehow. And so many of these cases go unreported. And this is just very unfortunate.

It’s shameful, really, that in 2017 farmworkers still have to contend with this—with these types of chemicals that are—you know, the evidence is there. Science is overwhelmingly proven that these chemicals are harmful to both children and the farmworker and to the community at large. You know, we have farmworkers throughout California and the Central Valley, where, you know, the valley acts as a bowl. A lot of these chemicals are contained inside the valley, so, for farmworkers and farmworking communities, these chemicals are trapped in the air, the air that we breathe. You know, they contaminate the water that we drink. And, you know, they’re in the playgrounds that our children play in. So, you know, these chemicals are shamefully still being used by corporate agribusiness, this in 2017.

AMY GOODMAN: Eriberto, can you talk about the difficulties with treating the farmworkers on the scene when they got sick on May 5th?

ERIBERTO FERNANDEZ: Sure. When the fire department arrived, it was very unfortunate that most of the folks that were treated, about 12 of them, farmworkers, who remained on the field, were treated by people who, unfortunately, did not speak the language. Most of these paramedics were English-only speakers. And for the most part, farmworkers speak Spanish. You know, we have a situation in Kern County where a lot of the county and—county officials and county employees are English-only speakers. And in this type of instance, not only were they not able to communicate directly with the farmworkers, but it also took a very long time for them to show up and arrive on the scene at the time of the incident. It took an hour for the paramedics to arrive. And by that time, you know, most of the farmworkers had left.

AMY GOODMAN: And have all the farmworkers who got sick been treated? What are the dangers of not treating people exposed?

ERIBERTO FERNANDEZ: You know, unfortunately for—in this instance, we still don’t know if these farmworkers visited the ER, if at all. You know, what’s unfortunate is that we still don’t know what chemical was actually applied and what they were exposed to. What happens is, a lot of these farmworkers won’t seek the medical attention, number one, because they don’t have healthcare in their communities. And number two, I mean, they are not aware of how dangerous these chemicals can be. Even for the people who did experience some of the symptoms, unfortunately, many did not visit the ER or follow up with a doctor, simply because the training and the notification of what to do in case of exposure was not given.

AMY GOODMAN: So, are people also, farmworkers, afraid to go to an ER, perhaps afraid of being taken in, of being maybe deported?

ERIBERTO FERNANDEZ: Well, I think there’s a strong connection to—you know, a lot of these employees are contracted by farm labor contractors. They are, you know, oftentimes afraid to file a complaint with—you know, with Cal/OSHA or are afraid to file a complaint with workers’ compensation, simply because they’re afraid of being blacklisted from their employment and not given the chance to return back to work. And certainly, we know that about over 70 percent of the farm labor force across the United States are undocumented, so that does play a role in their decision-making and their ability to seek proper medical care.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know if these workers, the farmworkers at Bakerfield, were exposed to chlorpyrifos?

ERIBERTO FERNANDEZ: So, we’ve had conversations, and our ally groups, CRPE and other groups in the Central Valley, have had ongoing conversations with the county’s ag commissioner, and who’s indicated that while, you know, chlorpyrifos may be a culprit, they’re still not 100 percent sure that that may be the pesticide. But all, you know, fingers point towards a spraying nearby this cabbage farm that was—you know, it was a citrus farm that sprayed Vulcan. So, you know, we won’t know for certain until maybe even a week or two or even a month. And by then, most of these farmworkers would either have migrated out of the area or, you know, have no real remedy but to just kind of move on with their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from the documentary Cesar’s Last Fast, directed by Richard Ray Perez and Lorena Parlee. The film features never-before-seen footage of Chavez’s 1988 36-day fast to bring attention to the dangers of pesticides in the fields.

DR. FIDEL HUERTA: Today is day 30 of Cesar Chavez’s water fast. He’s lost approximately 30 pounds. His physical stamina is rapidly deteriorating. I believe I am—we are getting to a critical point of his fast here.

UNIDENTIFIED: We’re all of the opinion that we strongly urge Cesar to give serious consideration to discontinuing his fast.

PAUL CHAVEZ: He was in so much pain. Towards the end, he couldn’t talk very much. I remember people would come in to comfort him, right? He ended up comforting them, and they felt much better when they left, right? And so, not only did he have to carry the burden of his own fast, right, but he had to comfort folks that came to see him, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the documentary Cesar’s Last Fast. Eriberto, can you talk about the significance of Cesar Chavez, who is focusing on pesticides in the fields how many decades ago?

ERIBERTO FERNANDEZ: Goodness, you know, it’s even before—well, shortly after I was born, certainly, 1988, his longest—his longest fast. And, in fact, one of the chemicals that he was fighting to eradicate in [ 1988 ], during that fast, is the same chemical that we’re fighting against to eradicate today: chlorpyrifos. It’s so shameful that after so many years of science, of evidence, of studies and of knowing very well what the effects are on children, that this very same chemical is out in the market.

It’s unfortunate that after so many years of fighting—and certainly the United Farm Workers is no stranger to this fight—that we’re still contending with major agrochemical companies whose only motive, really, is profit. And the way that agriculture operates throughout the Central Valley and many parts of the United States really only cares about one thing, which is profit. Farmworkers are indispensable. Unfortunately, for many of these farms, they have all the highest technology available to them, they have the highest chemicals available to them—these are the growers—but yet farmworkers are still today, in 2017, neglected and shamefully left out of meaningful worker protections.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role that consumers can play? Certainly, Cesar Chavez mobilized people around the country, the grape boycott. You, as a child farmworker, picked grapes, Eriberto. What about today?

ERIBERTO FERNANDEZ: You know, unfortunately, still today, child labor makes up a large part of the farm labor workforce. It’s true across the country. It’s certainly true in my community of Delano, California. And, you know, this is not because our parents took us out there to pick grapes for profit. It was simply because child care was just not available or too expensive for farmworkers to afford. So, oftentimes—you know, my personal story speaks to how farmworkers bring their children out into the fields. And oftentimes children, very vulnerable, you know, members of our community, are exposed to these very same toxic pesticides every single day.

You know, consumers—certainly we all eat, and we all have a role to play in changing the way that America and the American diet operates. You know, I think consumers can do a lot, and especially in calling out local grocery stores, your local assemblymember, your local congressman, to make sure that, you know, they offer more produce that are more organically and sustainably grown. Consumers, of course—you know, if you have almonds, if you have walnuts, if you have broccoli or tomatoes or cabbage sitting in your refrigerator, in your pantry, you know, you should know that these same products contain vestiges of highly dangerous chemicals, and very toxic, that, you know, if they cause a farmworker to faint or to vomit on the field, you know how dangerous these chemicals can be.

And so, you know, this is a call to action to every single consumer out there to know that—to visit us on our website at ww.org—”www.ufw.org”:http://ufw.org/ or visit us on Facebook, so you can keep up to date with what’s happening on the ground with fighting for not only just farmworkers’ lives, but creating a more sustainable food system that treats farmworkers well and that gives respect to those whose hands feed us.

AMY GOODMAN: Kristin Schafer, your group, Pesticide Action Network, filed several FOIA requests to get copies of the EPA’s correspondence with Dow Chemical.

KRISTIN SCHAFER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, Andrew Liveris in the room with Donald Trump as he signs off to deregulate a number of chemicals. Talk about what you’re doing.

KRISTIN SCHAFER: Yeah, basically, we are wanting to get a look at what exactly the pressure from Dow looked like over the last several years, as EPA was considering what to do about chlorpyrifos. And EPA has delayed releasing that information. We filed again here in March under the new administration, and they did not respond in a timely way. And so we just recently, last week, filed a complaint so that we are hoping to get our hands on that correspondence in time to respond to the March 29th decision. There’s actually an open-comment period right now under the EPA docket, where folks can voice their concerns about this decision to greenlight chlorpyrifos. And so, we’re hoping to—that the court will force EPA to release those documents, so that we can include in our comments evidence of the collusion with Dow Chemical.

And one thing I wanted to point out: I think Eriberto had, you know, highlighted how long this battle has been going on around chlorpyrifos and all these other—you know, there are many chemicals that are known to cause human health harms that are still on the market despite really strong scientific evidence showing that they really should not be. And I think that reflects a really systemic problem of how much influence these corporations have on our public agencies. So, this case is Dow Chemical, and it’s kind of out in the open in a new and different way under this administration. But the fact is that corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta and Dow, you know, all of the pesticide corporations that have so much—that gain so much profit from these products, have had an amazing amount of influence on EPA decision-making for much too long.

AMY GOODMAN: Kristin Schafer of Pesticide Action Network North America and Eriberto Fernandez of the UFW, United Farm Workers, thank you so much for being with us. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting from California. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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