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Pesticides and Farmworkers

In 1997, Earthjustice, Columbia Legal Service, and pro bono counsel from a private firm represented farmworkers throughout Washington State who were poisoned by extremely toxic forms of organophosphate and carbamate pesticides in a class action lawsuit to protect their health. The pesticides at the heart of the case are designed from nerve gas developed during World War II. Exposure to these pesticides can cause dizziness, vomiting, seizures, loss of consciousness, paralysis, permanent nerve damage, and even death. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of these poisons. The agricultural industry applied more than 1.4 million pounds of these highly toxic pesticides in Washington State in 2001.

For more than 15 years, farmworkers tried to convince the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries to create a mandatory medical monitoring rule for farmworkers who handle the most toxic forms of OP and CB pesticides. In 1997, Earthjustice's Seattle office and farmworker groups sued L&I for failing to comply with a state law requiring medical monitoring for such farmworkers. Medical monitoring helps to prevent poisonings by alerting doctors and workers to dangerous levels of pesticide exposure. In 2002, the state Supreme Court ruled for the farmworkers by requiring L&I to initiate a mandatory monitoring rulemaking.

Following the court's strongly worded ruling, L&I invited farmworkers, growers, and health care professional to help the department create this protection. The agricultural industry, however, attempted to derail this consensus-based process by lobbying the state legislature to pass a law that allowed voluntary monitoring. Earthjustice and farmworker organizations succeeded in defeating this effort and also worked to increase protections for farmworker pesticide handlers by commenting on the proposed rule and other rulemaking documents.

In December 2003, L&I is poised to adopt a mandatory medical monitoring rule for farmworkers who handle the most toxic forms of these pesticides used in Washington State. Washington will be one of only two states in the nation to mandate such protection. California has required medical monitoring of farmworkers for more than 25 years.

The new rule requires the following:

Medical Monitoring: Testing will be required for workers who handle the most toxic forms of organophosphate and carbamate pesticides for at least 50 hours in the first year and 30 hours in the second year.

Medical Removal Benefits: If tests show that pesticides have impacted a worker's health, the worker can decline tasks involving further exposures and maintain pay and seniority.

Privacy: Workers do not discuss poisonings with doctors out of fear of retaliation by growers. The rule helps ensure doctor-patient privacy during testing and medical removal.