As she pulled up the seedlings from the pots, she began to “feel dizzy and weak, experienced numbness in her mouth, and vomited,” according to a complaint she would later file against her employer in federal district court in southern Florida.
Alfau had no idea why she was feeling so ill. But lawyers from the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, which represented her in the lawsuit, learned through deposition that the area of the nursery where the hibiscus grew had been sprayed with the pesticide endosulfan less than 24 hours earlier. Her employer allegedly failed to warn her about the elapsed time before it was safe to enter. Alfau had been wearing no protective gear.
Alfau alleges in the lawsuit that there were times when the applicators sprayed the nursery even while she and her fellow farmworkers were tending to the plants.
The nursery denied wrongdoing, but settled with the then 43-year-old single mother of three in 2012 for $100,000. When asked recently whether his nursery was still using endosulfan, Power Bloom president Steve Power said he had no comment.
Many believe that pesticide poisonings like Alfau’s, as well as years of pressure from a broad coalition of environmentalists, health care advocates, farmworkers, and scientists, were responsible for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announcement of a six-year phase-out of endosulfan in 2010.
The federal agency negotiated an agreement with the compound’s sole manufacturer, Makhteshim Agan, based in Israel at the time, to stop using the pesticide crop-by-crop. In an email justifying the long phase-out, the agency said that it needed to give growers “time to research and adopt lower risk alternatives,” especially for crops with limited choices.
The EPA acknowledged that even though it had not fully addressed all the ecological and human health risk concerns regarding endosulfan, it had taken a number of mitigation measures to make its use safer.
Environmentalists were upset. It seemed the chemical’s use would continue for years, eventhe federal agency said on its own website that endosulfan “can pose unacceptable neurological and reproductive risks to farmworkers and wildlife, and can persist in the environment.” Birds and mammals that consume aquatic prey that have ingested endosulfan are also at risk, the EPA said.
“The longer it is used, the longer it can stay in the environment and endanger human life,” said Jeannie Economos, Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project Coordinator with the Farmworkers Association of Florida, a 10,000-strong statewide membership organization. “When the EPA determined it was a dangerous pesticide, its use should have been abruptly terminated.”
Even before the EPA’s taper-off announcement, around 80 countries had either banned the pesticide or started to phase it out, after determining it was unsafe. Australia ended its use in 2010, after the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority declared that there was “substantial evidence” that the pesticide was highly toxic “for most animal groups.”
Health Scientists Weigh in
“Endosulfan is a highly, highly, highly toxic insecticide,” said Prof. Syed M. Naqvi, an environmental toxicologist who studied its impact on fresh water animals at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., in the 1990s. Naqvi published his findings in The Journal of Environmental Health and Science. “If humans are exposed to it,” he said, “it can cause serious health impacts.”
Other animal studies worldwide also have shown that endosulfan can damage the nervous system, kidney, liver, and male reproductive organs.
“At sufficiently high doses, endosulfan may cause seizures, vomiting and convulsions in animals and humans,” said Marilyn Silva, a scientist in the pesticide programs division of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR), noting that her understanding of endosulfan toxicity is “based primarily on animal studies.”
Silva went on to say that even though “the primary target for its toxic effects is the central nervous system,” endosulfan could also be “toxic to other organs and systems in animals and possibly in humans.” CDPR studies also show that after oral treatment in rats—widely considered as a strong stand-in for humans in toxicological testing—the liver and kidney were the sites of greatest endosulfan concentration.
Dr. B.D. Banerjee, who teaches biochemistry, immunology, and environmental toxicology at the University of Delhi, found that high levels of the pesticide were responsible for pre-term births in women there. His study was published in 2008 in the peer-reviewed journal Human and Experimental Toxicology. Early birth is linked to many negative health outcomes later in life.
“When pesticides enter the bodies of pregnant women, the pesticides manifest in the babies as illness and disease,” he said. Banerjee speculates it could take generations for people and the land in India to recover from endosulfan poisoning.
It was also the chemical that caused an environmental disaster in India in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was aerially sprayed on crops such as cashews. It is blamed for killing about 700 villagers in Kasargod District in the southern Indian state of Kerala, and maiming 8,000 more, according to C. Jayakumar of the Kerala-based public interest research group, Thanal. And the fallout continues.
In the 1990s, cases of epilepsy and cancer had spiked in adults, and more and more children were being born with twisted and emaciated limbs, missing fingers and toes, swollen heads and blind, among other physical abnormalities. Scores of them displayed cognitive disorders, according to Physician Dr. Y.S. Mohan Kumar, into whose clinic patients poured.
A 2007 study by scientists with the California Department of Public Health found that babies born to women living near fields to which either dicofol or endosulfan had been applied during the course of their pregnancy were more likely to develop autism than those who did not.
Endosulfan, like DDT, belongs to the organochlorine family, an early generation of farm chemicals that are remarkably persistent. Like DDT, endosulfan can travel long distances via air and water currents. It does not break down in soil or human tissues either.
“If it’s an organochlorine, it lasts in the human body for a long time,” accumulating in the fatty tissue, said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an environmental epidemiologist at U.C. Davis.
Acute exposures aside, chronic, consumers are also exposed through residue on foods such as oils, fats, and fruit and vegetables..
So why was the pesticide given such a long phase-out time?
“We have lots of evidence of inappropriate industry influence of pesticide companies on regulatory agencies regarding decision-making related to registration of pesticides and restrictions (or lack thereof) on pesticide use,” said Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network of North America, an organization that has been in the forefront of efforts to get the EPA ban endosulfan use.
But the EPA defended the long phase-out saying that after consulting with scientists in 2008, it made a “new risk assessment approach for chemicals which are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic” and came up with the phase-out schedule.
Enough momentum had built around India’s “ban endosulfan” campaign for its Supreme Court to ban the chemical in by 2011. Over the objections of the pesticide industry and farmers, the court ruled that endosulfan could no longer be produced, distributed and used anywhere in India.
But “banning does not mean anything in India because bans are loosely implemented here,” noted Amit Khurana, program manager of Food Safety and Toxins with the Center for Environment and Science, a New Delhi-based public interest research group.
Just a month before India’s Supreme Court handed down its decision, 80 countries had ratified the Stockholm Convention, a binding international treaty on persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Endosulfan was included on the list of POPs because it met all the criteria—persistence, bioaccumulation, toxicity, and potential for long-range environmental transport.
“The endosulfan tragedy in India factored very much in the discussions at the Convention,” said Pamela Miller, executive director of the Alaska Community Action on Toxins (ACAT).
Continued Use in the U.S.
Endosulfan’s use has diminished significantly over the last few years. Yet the EPA estimates that farmers used about 380,000 pounds nationwide use in 2010 and the use in 2013—the most recent data available —that number likely dropped to about 80,000 pounds.
Growers still use it on strawberry and pineapple crops. The pesticide is also used for seed harvesting on broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, radish, mustard greens, raddish, rutabaga and turnip crops. Florida is the top user of the pesticide because the state’s high humidity levels cause the chemical to breakdown, and require more application
In California, the state that grows nearly half of the nation’s produce, endosulfan use has dropped 98 percent since 2005. Until this summer, most endosulfan use in the state was on tomato crops, according to the CDPR.
Stuart Woolf co-owns and operates the 40-year-old, 25,000-acre Woolf Farming Co. in Fresno County. The bulk of the tomatoes grown on are eventually processed and turned into paste. A bottle of Heinz ketchup more than likely contains tomatoes grown on Woolf Farms.
Woolf said that since he began reducing endosulfan use on his farm last year, he has lost $4 million to “massive infestations” of stinkbugs that attacked his tomatoes. He said he has begun planting a “trap crop,” seeding small, flowering plants like marigold close to the tomato crops so the stinkbugs will be attracted to those and leave his tomatoes alone. “But that’s a risky game,” Woolf said. There is no guarantee the tomato plants will be safe from the bugs. “You need a contact material to keep those bugs away.”
Endosulfan is also hard for farmers to give up because it is relatively inexpensive, Griffin at the Fresno County Agricultural Commission acknowledged. “But there are chemicals that do a better job with less environmental impact,” he said.
In general, all or nearly all the insecticides currently on the market are newer and less toxic than endosulfan, said Richard Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State University. “(They) can serve as an alternative depending on the specific use.”
His years of working with organic farmers worldwide has convinced him that even the best agro-ecological practices are no match for some pests, like the cotton bollworm, Roush said.
PANNA’s campaign coordinator Medha Chandra dismissed the claim. She said that a number of West African countries have successfully moved to organic cotton farming in the last decade or so. One of West Africa’s top cotton exporters, Burkina Faso, became the world’s 10th largest organic cotton producer in 2008, according to Organic Exchange.
No Mandatory Pesticide Reporting
Just how many farmworkers suffer from pesticide exposure is hard to know, said attorney Gregory S. Schell of the Migrant Farmworkers Justice Project, because there is no nationwide mandatory pesticide poisoning reporting.
When nursery worker Jovita Alfau went to the Emergency Room at Homestead Hospital after being exposed to endosulfan, the first doctor she saw did not even diagnose her illness as being caused by pesticide exposure, possibly because she did not think it was important to tell him what kind of work she did, Alfau said. But an environmental medical specialist her attorneys later hired said her symptoms were typical of pesticide exposure.
After Alfau sued the nursery, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) – the pesticide law-enforcement agency – investigated the nursery, but found it was not at fault, Schell said, noting that the state agency “views its job as being a cheerleader for agriculture,” and does not have the interest of farmworkers at heart. FDACS did not respond to requests seeking a response.
Alfau’s co-workers, who were also exposed to the pesticide on that day in 2009, according to Alfau, would not corroborate her description of what happened. But she attributes this to fear.
Miguel Zelaya of the Farmworkers Association of Florida, who trains farmworkers on how to protect themselves from pesticide exposure, said he’s not surprised. “It would have cost them their jobs,” he said. “They might have worried about getting deported.”
Alfau was never able to go back to work after getting sick at Power Bloom nursery. She bought a trailer home with the settlement money and she believes that years of pesticide exposure have taken a toll on her. At 46 she is blind in one eye with only partial vision in the other. She has high blood pressure and renal failure that requires dialysis three times a week.
The Mexican native said her monthly $730 disability checks are barely enough to care for herself and her family. Food stamps, she said, only go so far. Alfau’s 22-year-old daughter, Yuriana, said she had to quit college three years ago to take care of her mother.
This article originally appeared on New American Media. The research for was paid for by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Photos courtesy of the Farmworker Association of Florida.