Organophosphates, friend and foe: the promise of medical monitoring for farm workers and their families.

Author:Busby, Adriane J.


Millions of farm workers nation-wide who load, mix and/or apply pesticides are exposed to incredible amounts of pesticides on a daily basis. Various inefficiencies and inconsistencies in the regulatory system--including insufficient illness reporting data systems, lack of regulatory compliance and enforcement, and inadequate data and information on the chronic effects of exposure and overexposure to various pesticides--increase the likelihood that these workers will continue to be exposed to dangerous amounts of pesticides.

This Article assesses the existing mechanisms designed to protect farm workers from occupational exposure to pesticides and identifies and analyzes some of the shortcomings of the regulatory system. It focuses on the class of pesticides known as organophosphates and examines the impact that such pesticides can have on farm workers as well as on their families. It then evaluates the State of Washington's medical monitoring rule, and recommends implementation of a federal medical monitoring program as a means of protecting all American farm workers from the dangers of pesticide overexposure.

  1. INTRODUCTION II. ORGANOPHOSPHATE BACKGROUND A. Importance of Organophosphates B. Concerns Over Organophosphates III. EXPOSURE BY SENSITIVE SUBPOPULATIONS A. Concern for Farm Worker Exposure B. Exposure by Children of Farm Workers IV. THE WASHINGTON STATE MEDICAL MONITORING CASE A. Medical Monitoring Rule B. Opponents of the Rule C. Initial Results V. IMPROVING FARM WORKER PROTECTIONS A. Determining Risks B. The Pesticide Industry C. History of Legislation D. Recommendations for a National Medical Monitoring Rule E. Additional Protection Outside the Medical Monitoring Rule VI. CONCLUSION I.


In 1999, a healthy fifteen-year-old migrant farm worker named Jose Casillas left his home in Mexico for the orchards of central Utah hoping to earn enough to support his family in Mexico. (1) A few months after his arrival, Casillas was sprayed by an applicator-tractor with Guthion Solupak, a pesticide similar to Sarin. (2) Earlier that same week, Casillas had been sprayed with other pesticides--which he believed to be only water--while he was working in the field. (3) After the first field exposure, Casillas suffered intense headaches. After the second exposure, Casillas began to vomit, sweat excessively and suffer with diarrhea. (4) Despite being ill, Casillas attempted to ride his bike to work the next morning but lost consciousness and collapsed. By the time medical help arrived, he was dead, "with foam streaming from his nose." (5)

There are legal protections that are supposed to prevent tragedies like this. For instance, it is illegal to spray pesticides when workers are in fields, and farmers are supposed to be informed about, and take preventative steps to protect against, pesticide poisoning. (6) Moreover, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) (7) requires states to certify pesticide applicators who use restricted-use pesticides and anyone who commercially sells, distributes, or applies pesticide products. (8) Additionally, FIFRA standards require that an individual be deemed "competent" before they can be formally certified to use or handle pesticides. (9) Sadly for Casillas, and many other farm workers across the United States, these "regulatory guarantees" are not enough.

Despite such protections, millions of farm workers nationwide who load, mix and apply pesticides are exposed to incredible amounts of pesticides every day. They can be exposed through direct handling of pesticide products, daily work around recently treated areas, contaminated and often inadequate clothing, and inhalation of airborne pesticides drifting in the winds. Occasionally, farm workers, like Casillas, suffer direct exposure. Direct and indirect exposures occur for various reasons, including lack of regulatory compliance and enforcement, poor training of farm workers and applicators, inadequate clothing and other safety equipment, and the failure of some applicators to follow required procedures. The present regulatory system also lacks any meaningful illness-reporting data systems and has no mechanism for monitoring or collecting information on the chronic effects of exposure and overexposure to various pesticides. (10) No, the system is not broken. It is simply ineffective to protect the workers who toil in the fields every day to provide us with the food and fiber we demand. Unless something is done, it is likely that such workers will continue to suffer from exposure to dangerous pesticidal chemicals.

This Article assesses the existing mechanisms designed to protect farm workers from occupational exposure to pesticides and identifies and analyzes some of the shortcomings of the regulatory system. It does so by focusing on the class of pesticides known as organophosphates and the ongoing debate over their safety and utility. It also considers the merits of a federally mandated medical monitoring program and argues that such regulations would enhance farm worker safeguards by providing them with preventative mechanisms for detecting pesticide exposure before serious physical harm results.

Part II of this Article examines the history of organophosphates and describes the importance of these chemicals to the agricultural and agro-chemical communities. This part also details the nature and effects of this class of toxicants as well as the risks posed to human health and the environment. Part III follows by looking at the impact pesticides like organophosphates have on a unique but significant subpopulation--farm workers and their children--that is particularly susceptible to pesticide poisoning. Part IV then evaluates the Washington Supreme Court case of Rios v. Dep't of Labor & Industries, (11) which imposed a mandatory medical monitoring rule in the State of Washington. This section evaluates the Washington medical monitoring program, its projected benefits for farm workers and their families, and the impact on farmers and industry that ensued as a result of the rule's implementation. Thereafter, Part V considers the merits of a national medical monitoring rule as well as other regulatory restrictions on pesticides and their uses.



Human beings have used pesticides since they first discovered how to cultivate their environment to yield crops and support livestock. (12) However, the development of manmade pesticides during the twentieth century led to the worldwide use of pesticides. (13) The term "pesticide" now encompasses many products, including insect repellants, herbicides, fungicides and swimming pool chemicals designed to prevent, destroy or repel pests of any sort. (14) Although pesticides have greatly aided society in providing and maintaining sufficient food for the world's burgeoning population, they can have grave effects on humans and the environment when used or applied improperly.

  1. Importance of Organophosphates

    During the 1930s, Dr. Gerhard Schrader, a chemist at the Bayer Corporation in Germany, investigated the use of organophosphates (also known as OPs) as an insecticide. (15) While his agricultural research showed considerable promise, the German military soon realized the potential for organophosphates as chemical warfare agents and quickly re-directed Schrader's research toward the Nazi effort. (16) It was not until 1941 that organophosphates became more widely available for their originally intended pesticidal purposes. (17)

    Today, organophosphates are extremely popular in the agricultural and agro-chemical industries and are applied in homes and businesses alike. (18) Organophosphates are used on many crops--including peaches, apples, snap beans, pears, corn, cotton and wheat (19)--and are the most widely used pesticide nationwide. (20) Since the beginning of WWII, the global application of pesticides has increased by 600 percent, with 6.6 billion pounds used annually today. (21) The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization projects a continued rise in pesticide use worldwide in the foreseeable future. (22)

    What is the cause for both the historic and projected increases in pesticide use, including the increasing use of organophosphates? Proponents of pesticides suggest that the simple answer is money. Proponents contend that farmers choose to utilize pesticides "because they make more money when they use them than when they do not. Their willingness to spend substantial amounts, such as $8.5 billion in 1996, is convincing evidence that farmers find pesticide use profitable." (23) In addition, pesticide advocates assert that, when used properly, pesticides can be advantageous to the general public. They argue that pesticide use benefits consumers by lowering the cost of some crops and increasing their availability to low-income consumers. (24) Furthermore, they suggest that "reductions in pesticide use could indirectly have a negative health effect by reducing the consumption of fruits and vegetables that contain many valuable micronutrients." (25)

    Organophosphates are, in fact, relatively inexpensive when compared to alternative pesticides (26) such as methyl carbamate and pyrethroid insecticide. (27) Organophosphates can also be used on an array of crops to control various insects such as the cabbage maggot, which damages broccoli, (28) as well as aphids and cabbage loppers. (29) As a result, producers have been able to increase crop yield by preventing pest damage to crops. (30) Pesticide proponents argue that these yield-increasing results help reduce the amount of land and water resources necessary for agriculture, freeing up resources while maintaining production levels. (31) Furthermore, organophosphates have been found to be significantly less persistent in the environment than other pesticides like chlorinated hydrocarbons. (32)

    Notwithstanding the apparently abundant benefits of pesticides...

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