Report: Farms, orchards should warn neighbors before they spray chemicals

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With pesticide drift and the associated health risks on the rise in Washington, a new report is again calling for requirements that farms and orchards notify neighbors before spraying chemicals.

The report, published by Columbia Legal Services and the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, cites a dramatic increase in the number of people who became ill after being accidentally sprayed by pesticides on farms and orchards in the past few years.

According to state Department of Health data cited by the report, in 2012, 43 people became sick from 15 different pesticide drift events; in 2014, 129 people were sickened from 22 different events.

To avoid the potential health hazards, the report’s authors recommend increasing state requirements for notification when a farm or orchard is going to be spraying.

“Washington has several regulations that require prior notice for schools and chemically-sensitive persons living in residential areas, but nothing for farm workers working on neighboring farms despite being at the highest risk for drift exposure,” the report said.

It’s not about growers not paying attention to existing requirements, said Joe Morrison, attorney with Columbia Legal Services, which has represented farm workers in Washington state who were exposed to pesticides through drift.

“It’s just the fact that no matter how careful you are (when spraying), you’re going to get people sick if you don’t notify them and get them out of the area in the first place,” Morrison said. “The goal is basically to keep farm workers and others in the community safe because even the safest pesticide applicator is going to make mistakes; winds shift; and chemicals can travel,” sometimes more than half a mile away.

The report also calls for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to take pesticide drift into account when developing risk assessments for pesticide labels, and improve drift protections for farm worker children.

The people at highest risk of exposure in pesticide drift are farm workers on another farm. Nearby residents are also at high risk, according to Health Department data.

Workers exposed to concentrated amounts of pesticides through drift experience burning eyes and itchy skin, coughing and trouble breathing, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea; along with neurologic problems like fainting, headaches and weakness. Many report headaches and sore throats years after the initial exposure.

A bill that would have required pesticide applicators to notify neighbors before spraying died in committee this legislative session, though advocates hope they can squeeze in a budget proviso before the end of session to establish a work group on the issue.

The bill would have required written notice of spraying to adjacent property owners “between two and 48 hours” prior to the intended pesticide application. The notice would have had to include the time, date and location of the intended application; the names, addresses and phone numbers of the pesticide user and the contractor who’d be doing the spraying; a list of the pesticides to be used; phone numbers for the state’s pesticide program and the Poison Control Center; explanation that only protected pesticide handlers should be in the area at the time of application, and of the “restricted-entry interval” during which non-protected people should avoid the area; and a bilingual statement that the pesticide user can provide additional information if needed.

The bill would also have required growers to keep a record of pesticide applications on file with the Health Department, so the state can make the data publicly available.

Efforts to reach the Yakima County Farm Bureau to discuss the report were not immediately successful Wednesday.

Opposition from growers centers on what they consider the onerous notification requirements, which could mean tracking down people spread out all over a nearby farm, or hamper their ability to spray in ideal weather conditions by requiring advance planning. Agricultural groups also say that their growers are already doing this “common sense” measure, so there’s no need to codify it in law.

But advocates say notification could take advantage of existing technology, like sending a mass text or bulletin through the popular messaging app WhatsApp, for little to no cost and little trouble, beyond initially setting up lists of neighbors who would need to be notified in the future.

“I really think that virtually everybody cares and they want to do the right thing,” Morrison said of growers who oppose the idea of requiring notification. “But even the best of intentions go awry.”