63 farmworkers exposed to pesticides on vineyard

Workers began feeling nauseous, vomiting while tending grapes in the Dinuba area

By Kaitlin Washburn @kwashy12

DINUBA – Farm workers were allegedly exposed to pesticides last week while working on a vineyard west of Dinuba. Three were sent to Kaweah Delta Medical Center in Visalia for nausea and vomiting following the June 18 incident.

First responders and county officials responded to a chemical exposure call just before 11 a.m. at a vineyard on the 4800 block of Avenue 408. A neighboring farm south of the vineyard was spraying a pesticide that drifted to where 63 farm workers were tending grapes, said Chief Charlie Norman of the Tulare County Fire Department.  

The fire department, Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office and Tulare County Department of Environmental Health responded to the incident and assisted with decontamination.

Marianna Gentert, the Tulare County deputy agricultural commissioner for pesticide use, said it is still unclear whether pesticide sprays from nearby farms reached the farm workers. The office is conducting an investigation into the incident. 

After the workers were decontaminated, Gentert said the commissioner’s office interviewed over 30 workers, not including the three sent to the hospital, and only one reported symptoms related to chemical exposure. All of the workers interviewed said they smelled a chemical odor but did not see a spray, Gentert said. 

If someone comes in contact or inhales pesticides, symptoms can include nausea, vomiting and headaches. 

The ag commissioner’s office also gathered samples from the field to test whether pesticides drifted to the vineyard. As a part of the office’s investigation, Gentert said the samples are sent to one of two state-run labs, and results can take anywhere from six weeks to six months to return. 

The two labs, run by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, are responsible for testing samples sent from any of California’s 58 agricultural commissioners, Gentert said. The labs are in Anaheim and Sacramento.  

If the test results prove that there was a pesticide drift, the grower faces a misdemeanor and a hefty fine. If the grower was noncompliant in the past, they could lose their permit to spray pesticides, Gentert said. 

“It’s legal to spray adjacent to a field where people are working, however, it’s never legal to move application to another field where people are working,” Gentert said.

Under California law, when spraying pesticides, growers are responsible for evaluating equipment, weather conditions, the property to be treated and surrounding areas to determine the chances of harm or damage. 

The symptoms workers experienced could also be from heat exhaustion as it takes awhile to get acclimated to the summer heat. They started working at 4 or 5 a.m., and the incident didn’t occur until later that morning, Gentert said.  

Labor contractors are trained annually on recognizing overheating and pesticide symptoms, Gentert said. 

The labor contractor for the workers, Grape Man Inc., did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication. 

Norman said the fire department’s hazardous materials unit determined the workers were exposed to Hexythiazox, a pesticide used for killing mites. 

The fire department, along with the county’s environmental health department, decontaminated the workers, equipment and vehicles. Workers also changed into clean clothes, which health officials also tested for chemicals. 

Tammie Weyker-Adkins, a public information officer for the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency, said environmental health officials with the agency detected two pesticides, Onager Optek, for killing mites, and Reaper Clearform, for killing insects. 

If someone comes in contact or inhales these pesticides, symptoms can include dilated pupils, nausea, headaches and irritated eyes and skin.

Kaitlin Washburn is a Report for America corps member covering agriculture for The Sun-Gazette.

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