Food And Poison

Farm workers are exposed to dangerous chemicals, so that we might eat.

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Those of us who enjoy eating rarely think about where our food comes from.

Several years ago, I saw the photograph reprinted on the cover of this newspaper at an art gallery in St. Petersburg. The image haunted me. Here were two women bent over all day, picking strawberries just like the ones I'd enjoyed that morning for breakfast. My pleasure, obviously, was greater than theirs.

Stories about the hard life of farm workers have become a staple of American labor journalism, none more famous than Edward R. Murrow's classic 1960 television documentary Harvest of Shame. Forty years later, the complexion of farm workers has shifted somewhat, from poor whites and African-Americans to Caribbean islanders, Mexicans and Central Americans. But the necessities of the work — and its intertwining of opportunity and hardship — have in many ways remained the same.

Fortunately, two Tampa Bay area documentarians, Nano Riley and Davida Johns, have collaborated in a new book that describes the state of Florida farm work today.

Florida's Farmworkers in the Twenty-first Century is part of a series on Florida history and culture published by the University Press of Florida in Gainesville (www.upf.com). It's worth noting that the series' editors, Ray Arsenault and Gary Mormino, also are well known in the Tampa Bay area and beyond, through their teaching, research and public service as history professors at the University of South Florida.

The book offers a compelling written and photographic account of the farm worker lifestyle — its demographics, economics, health and safety issues and family life. With the publisher's permission, we are reprinting excerpts from a chapter on pesticides, which is especially timely today. As Riley reports in a side story prepared for us, the 2003 Legislature once again turned its back on farm worker safety, by failing to reinstate a law that guarantees that workers are told about the dangerous chemicals that affect them.

One more local note: One of the proposal's primary sponsors is State Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg. I know his mama, and in this cause he does her proud. —Jim Harper


At the edge of a fallow field in southern Hillsborough County, near the tiny hamlet of Parrish, empty pesticide containers lie in a heap, decaying in the sun. The names of the chemicals are now illegible, but the skull and crossbones on the fading labels is a dead giveaway for what they once contained. Some are plastic jugs; some are cardboard boxes.

Although farm workers know pesticides can be harmful, many are unaware of the long-term effects and how they may affect their children, especially the unborn. The symptoms of exposure to these poisons may be similar to those caused by flu or a cold; sometimes it is a persistent rash, a bit of numbness, or headaches. Most do not even bother reporting such nebulous symptoms. With the need to put food on the table, many workers pay scant attention to aches and pains that might cause others to miss a day of work.

Florida passed a "Right to Know" law in 1994, which allowed workers to know what they were handling. Before this, no law required growers to notify workers of the potential dangers of any pesticides they handled or even what the pesticide was. Though the law said pesticide applicators must take a course in pesticide safety and receive a certificate allowing them to use the commercial-strength chemicals, the poisons may still be applied by anyone under the certified person's supervision. This means that anyone can apply pesticides, even if the worker doing the actual application cannot read the instructions that are printed in English.

Because pesticides are easy to mishandle, there are frequent newspaper accounts of poisoning among unsuspecting farm workers. Sometimes these poisonings lead to lawsuits against the largest chemical manufacturers, but it can be tough business fighting such giants as DuPont, Monsanto, and Dow. The difficulty of pressing these suits was illustrated a few years ago by the case of Juan and Donna Castillo, who sued DuPont and Pine Island Farms when their son was born without eyes. Donna Castillo claimed that in November 1989 she was soaked with the pesticide Benlate by a tractor spraying tomato fields belonging to Pine Island Farms as she walked near her South Florida home. At that time she was seven months pregnant with her son, John.

In 1996, a state court jury in Miami deliberated the negligence case brought against DuPont, which alleged that John Castillo's birth deformity was caused by the fungicide Benlate 50 DF, which was commonly in use in vegetable fields. Attorneys for DuPont and Pine Island Farms argued that Benlate was not in use at the time. DuPont claimed that its product, accused of causing devastating damage to some farms by killing plants, causes no damage to humans. The case was the first claim involving the boy's birth defect, microphthalmia, or tiny eyes. (In John's case, there were only dents where his eyes should have been.) The Miami jury awarded $4-million in damages to John, but the case was appealed.

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