Officials Launch Probes Into Potential Pesticide Drifts That Sickened Dozens of Central Valley Farmworkers

Farmworkers head home after a day of picking at a large citrus farm in Edison, near Bakersfield. (Sean Havey/KQED)

Agricultural commissioners in two Central Valley counties have launched investigations into two apparent chemical releases that sickened dozens of fieldworkers over the last nine days.

The latest incident took place in Fresno County on Thursday morning when a group of farmworkers picking nectarines began feeling sick after several pesticides had been sprayed on a nearby field. That came nine days after several other farmworkers in Tulare County reported feeling ill at the end of their shift, possibly because of a chemical drift.

At least 32 workers complained of symptoms in the two cases, although scores of others working alongside them may have been exposed to chemicals as well.

Investigators are specifically trying to determine if a pesticide sprayed on a nearby field drifted to the field where the workers got sick.

The incident on Thursday took place in the town of Kerman, west of the city of Fresno. Some 29 workers complained of symptoms that included vomiting, headaches and itchy eyes and throats, according to Stace Leoni, the county's deputy agricultural commissioner. Three of the employees were hospitalized, she added.

Leoni said the chemicals that were sprayed in the vicinity of the workers included Nealta miticide, Zylo insecticide and summer oil, a substance that helps the chemicals stick to the leaves of crops.

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None of the chemicals are considered "California restricted materials," so the company that applied them was not required to provide county officials with advance notice they would be used, according to both Leoni and Charlotte Fadipe, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Leoni declined to release the name of the agricultural company that applied the chemicals.

The farmworkers in the latest incident are employed by Gerawan Farming, one of the nation's largest growers of peaches, plums and nectarines. The Fresno-based company said it responded quickly once it got word that some of its employees were not feeling well and that its crews were not given a heads-up about pesticides being applied in the area.

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"Gerawan had not been given prior notice of the spraying," the company said in a statement.

The earlier Tulare County incident took place in a vineyard near Dinuba, southeast of Fresno, on June 18. Dozens of fieldworkers, employed by Visalia-based Grapeman Labor, were nearing the end of their shift, amid triple-digit temperatures, when some began feeling ill after detecting a chemical odor, according to Marianna Santos Gentert, a county deputy agricultural commissioner.

Workers said they felt dizzy and nauseous, and one of them vomited, she added.

Farmworker advocates say these incidents shine a light on something that happens all to often.

"We know this is not an exception," said Nayamin Martinez, director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network, which advocates for low-income communities of color in the Central Valley. "This is something that, unfortunately, happens more often than people know."

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