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The Idaho State Department of Agriculture is investigating what toxic substance a group of Treasure Valley farmworkers were exposed to over Memorial Day weekend, landing them in hospital emergency rooms after working in a hops field near Parma.
Ag officials declined to release the name of the farm where they working until after their investigation is complete. They said they have no record of employee complaints about pesticide or other chemical exposure at that farm during the past 20 years.
Pesticide exposure is a possibility but investigators have not ruled out other possible causes, Deputy Director Brian Oakey said Thursday during an interview at the state office.
“We really don’t have a certain, conclusive answer,” Oakey said. The case is a high priority, he said, and they expect to have resolved it within 30 days — after completing interviews and receiving lab test results.
The last case of a large group of Idaho farmworkers becoming ill was a 2005 pesticide exposure, according to department records. In that case, 29 farmworkers were sickened by a mixture of three pesticides — Lannate, Mustang Max and Dithane DF — that was applied to a Caldwell field about 4.5 hours before the workers began weeding, according to a 2005 Statesman article.
State agriculture investigators determined that there was a breakdown in communication that resulted in the chemical exposure, and they imposed a total of $40,000 in fines to those involved, including the farmer, labor contractor and the pilot who applied the pesticides. The farmworkers in that case told investigators that they had not received training about pesticides, as required by state law.
A Statesman review of pesticide complaints during the five years prior to the 2005 incident showed that pesticides drifting on to nearby fields was the main reason why farmworkers were exposed to the chemicals.
That case was highlighted by the group Farmworker Justice in a 2013 report titled “Exposed and Ignored: How Pesticides are Endangering Our Nation’s Farmworkers.” (Read the 18-page report).
“These are among the most vulnerable members of our community doing the most dangerous jobs, yet their protection is very, very weak,” Leo Morales, executive director of the ACLU of Idaho, told the Statesman this week.
“This is an incident we’re closely following,” he said of the Memorial Day weekend illnesses.
‘They were poisoned’
Caldwell Fire Department officials were the first to become aware of a possible toxic exposure after they encountered two patients in the emergency room at West Valley Medical Center early Sunday afternoon. The patients had suffered flu-like symptoms, including severe stomach ache and vomiting, and one fell unconscious, said Caldwell Fire Chief Mark Wendelsdorf.
“They had been at the same work site,” he said. “That’s when things developed into a much larger picture.”
This all began to unfold at about 1 p.m. Sunday.
The regional hazardous materials team was activated, and numerous state and local agencies were briefed on the situation via a conference call set up by State Comm, the Emergency Medical Services State Communications Center. Hospitals were notified that they might have incoming patients who needed to be decontaminated, with clothes and personal items bagged, and patients thoroughly washed.
Hazmat officials reached out to the farmworkers and families who might have been exposed. The fire chief said he is thankful that no one died — he believes that was a real possibility.
“They were poisoned, or got some poison on them,” Wendelsdorf said. “If these patients would have gone home and said, ‘I don’t feel good, I’m going to sleep,’ they may not have woken up.”
Oakey said officials can’t speculate on the deadliness of the toxin until they definitively determine what it was.
Wendelsdorf said doctors administered intravenous medications to counteract the effects.
More than 20 people were assessed and treated at West Valley in Caldwell, and several others were seen at a Boise hospital, Wendelsdorf said. About half were farmworkers, and the rest were family and friends. Twelve farm workers had exhibited flu-like symptoms, according to a press release from the fire department Sunday.
“Their clothes were fuming, or off-gassing. The chemical was coming off their clothes,” Wendelsdorf said, noting what he believed to be secondary exposure.
He said those who had gone home, showered and changed clothes after work seemed to be doing better than those who had not.
Wendelsdorf said the farm where the workers are believed to have been exposed to a toxin is outside Parma, in the Rosewell area. He didn’t know other details, such as farm ownership.
State investigation ongoing
With information from the farmworkers on where they had been working, a hazmat team was dispatched to the farm to figure out where the “hot zone” was, and then that information was shared with state agriculture investigators, Wendelsdorf said.
State ag regulates the registration, sale, distribution, use, storage and disposal of pesticides. The agency is also charged with implementing the EPA’s Agricultural Worker Protection Standard program, which aims to prevent pesticide-related injury or illness.
Federal law requires that workers be kept away from areas being treated with pesticides, be trained on using protective equipment, and be provided with pesticide safety information and emergency contacts.
Luis Urias, a bilingual agricultural program specialist who is focused on worker protection, was dispatched Sunday to interview farmworkers and associates about the incident. He said he got there around 3 p.m. and didn’t get back to the office in Boise until 11 p.m.
Others involved with the state investigation are gathering information from records on pesticide application in that area (not just the field they were working in, but any close enough to receive pesticide drift) and collecting samples (clothing, soil, plants). The tests are done at the department’s food quality assurance lab in Twin Falls.
Farms are required to make sure a list of all pesticides applied within 30 days is available to the farmworkers. Pesticides have different toxicity levels, and some are so dangerous that workers are not permitted to go into fields for up to 96 hours after the chemicals are applied. Signs prohibiting entry into those fields during those intervals are required.
Wendelsdorf was a new fire chief in 2005, when the pesticide exposure at a Caldwell onion farm sickened 29 farmworkers.
“It was baptism by fire,” he said.
In that case, the workers became ill while still at the farm. The hazmat team responded to the site and conducted decontamination there, before transporting the workers to the hospital for monitoring and treatment.
Wendelsdorf said one of the things they learned from that case was that the farmworkers could be wary of police assistance and don’t want to be transported to the hospital in police vans. He said the role of law enforcement has been minimized so that patients aren’t intimidated or scared.