How Illinois’ ‘Fragmented System’ of Monitoring Pesticide Exposure ‘Allows Individuals to get Poisoned Over and Over Without Any Brakes’

The farmworkers flocked to the two emergency rooms in Urbana, Illinois, the night of Aug. 5, 2019, their kids in tow. Numbering about 20, their skin had rashes, their eyes were red and they were vomiting. Though at two different hospitals, doctors arrived at the same conclusion: “chemical exposure.”

The doctors had a litany of instructions, according to discharge paperwork obtained by Investigate Midwest via a public records request. If your four-month-old is having trouble breathing, return to the emergency room right away, one doctor told a young mother. Return in a week so we can check on your four-year-old, another said. “Your clothing is still contaminated,” yet another doctor wrote. “You need to wash the clothing carefully.”

Hours earlier, a yellow plane flew over the corn field the workers were in and sprayed them with pesticides, according to allegations made in legal and state records. It flew so low that some clocked its tail numbers. But at the worksite, they said later, their employer had not provided facilities so they could wash the chemicals off — a federal violation. When some picked up their kids later, they hadn’t been able to decontaminate.  

It was the second time in two weeks the workers said they’d been sprayed.

Federal and state authorities would investigate the incidents, but how they came to their attention highlights flaws in Illinois’ monitoring of human exposure to pesticides — and shortcomings once authorities are involved. If not for an enterprising local health director, the incident likely would have escaped scrutiny.

Illinois’ regulations governing human pesticide exposure don’t do enough to protect people, said Dave Koehler, a Democratic state senator from Peoria and vice chair of the state senate’s agriculture committee. 

“It is a public health issue,” he said. “We don’t have adequate controls in that area.”

After months of reviewing Illinois’ system for monitoring human exposure to pesticides, Investigate Midwest found:

  • Despite tens of millions of pounds of pesticides sprayed in the state each year, Illinois does not require doctors — likely the first point of contact after a spraying — to report possible exposure cases. Other states with vast quantities of pesticides applied to vast fields of farmland, such as Iowa, do.
  • The Illinois Department of Agriculture has consistently levied little to no fines for human exposure to pesticides in recent years because of the state’s point system for assessing penalties. Pesticide applicators are assigned points for different violations; the more points, the greater the fine. 
  • Regardless of how many people were harmed, state law limits how many points an applicator can be assessed. Spraying a human is worth the same number of points as spraying without a permit or falsifying records.
  • Farmworkers are particularly at-risk of pesticide exposure, but the agriculture department has only investigated one other incident involving exposed farmworkers since 2019. The agency proved the applicator violated a federal law, the Worker Protection Standard, but, under the point system, it could only issue a warning.

The pesticide applicators in each incident were fined $750. That’s the largest amount in any case involving human exposure since 2019, the year the agriculture department began tracking human exposure cases. Theoretically, the agency could fine applicators up to $10,000. But, over the past decade, the largest penalties tallied $2,500, for dicamba drift incidents in 2019 and 2020, the agency said.

Read the full article at