Workers in Central Coast Pesticide Drift Tied to Dole, Driscoll's Were Sick for Days

A tractor sprays soybean crops with pesticides. (Getty Images)

A group of raspberry pickers, sickened by several chemicals that drifted onto the Watsonville field where they were working close to a year ago, felt sick for longer than previously known, according to newly revealed investigative findings.

Last month, Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo announced that he issued his largest fine ever, penalizing several companies tied to a pesticide drift near State Route 152 that made 15 agricultural employees sick the morning of June 29, 2017.

Several of the workers were hospitalized and the case gained attention from the news media. That included KQED, which revealed that the firms under investigation at the time were tied to two of the biggest names in produce: the Dole Food Company and Driscoll's.

Farmworker advocates pointed to the episode, along with several other pesticide cases that sickened more than 150 agricultural employees in Central California last year, as reason for the state Legislature to increase penalties for pesticide violations, an attempt that failed in the Assembly.

The extent of the workers' illnesses and the symptoms they experienced, some close to a week after the episode, are portrayed in more detail in the commissioner's full investigative findings that include interviews with the affected employees -- some of which took place at the Watsonville Community Hospital.

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"I saw the mist drifting toward us and there was a bad odor in the air. After about five or ten minutes I experienced stomach ache, vomiting and a bad taste in my mouth," one unidentified worker told investigators.

"I have had headaches since the exposure and missed a couple days of work," the employee said.

The chemicals also got the group's foreman sick.

"Immediately after the pesticide application started I experienced stomach ache, nausea, throat irritation and was vomiting," the foreman told the commissioner's office.

Other workers said the chemicals irritated their eyes and hands, made their breathing difficult and gave them a fever.

"I still feel a little weak and sore, like when you have a flu," one employee said on July 3, 2017.

"I was feeling sick until July 4," another worker said.

Experts and farmworker advocates who have reviewed the commissioner's findings for KQED say it's not rare for agricultural employees exposed to dangerous pesticides to experience symptoms long afterward.

"These are nasty chemicals and the problems that result from them can last not just days, weeks and months," said Mark Weller, co-director of the Berkeley-based Californians for Pesticide Reform.

"One of our greater concerns is that there are chronic and sometimes permanent problems that come from exposures to these pesticides," Weller said in interview.

There have been cases of agricultural workers who have sustained more extreme symptoms -- and for a longer time -- than those in last year's Watsonville case, according to Paul Blanc, a UC San Francisco professor of medicine specializing in occupational diseases, health and the environment.

"There's a myriad of pesticides, agricultural chemicals that have effects that can certainly last more than one day," Blanc said.

The workers who got sick were employed by FMG Farm Contractor, a company tied to Dole Food. They were working on a field owned by Coastal Berry North, another company linked to Dole.

FMG could not be reached. A Dole representative did not return a request for comment.

The agricultural commissioner's office is fining FMG $1,250 for failing to seek prompt medical attention for employees exposed to the pesticides.

The company that received the largest set of fines, $56,000 in total, is Los Amigos Harvesting. The agricultural commissioner said the firm sprayed pesticides without a license and did not follow instructions associated with the chemicals used, among other violations.

Los Amigos, which is appealing the fines, was employed by Garrett Farms, which does work for berry distributor Driscoll's.

Los Amigos Harvesting maintains that it followed all pesticide laws and disputes the commissioner's findings

Driscoll's has maintained that it's committed to preventing a similar incident with one of its independent growers.

The four agricultural chemicals that sickened them were the pesticides Pristine Fungicide, Rally 40WSP, DiPel DF and Widespread Max, which is a substance designed to improve pesticide coverage and penetration.