Advertisement
  1. Archive

Still a bitter harvest

It is eight days before Thanksgiving, harvest season in south Hillsborough County, when a farm worker in his mid-40s tells his crew leader he has a bad headache.

Sit down, Jose Mendoza says, as they bundle cauliflower plants in the morning sun.

Rest a minute and it will pass.

Then an 18-year-old man starts feeling ill. Soon there are four, five. Mendoza wonders if it is something in the water. He sends his son for the boss, thinking, "If I didn't tell him and this thing became worse, it would be my fault."

When the boy returns, there are 10 sick workers. By noon people are swaying and vomiting. Those with cars run shuttles to a migrant clinic. They are stripped naked, washed with a hose, rushed to hospitals.

The workers and their families, 112 people in all, have been exposed to Phosdrin, a powerful pesticide used in this case to control worms. Their employer, Goodson Farms, doused the fields and then sent them back at least 24 hours too early.

It was the largest such case in Florida history.

When it happened in 1989, it generated outrage about pesticides and the overall mistreatment of Hispanic field workers. Labor leaders filled meeting rooms. Public health specialists produced videos. Congress heard testimony. Workers waited for justice _ stronger laws, stiff sanctions, a multimillion-dollar award in court.

If any single event would bring about change, people thought, this was it.

Goodson was sued. But most of the plaintiffs settled, netting as little as $1,000 after legal fees and costs. The government is regulating pesticides, but slowly. Washington says Phosdrin is dangerous.

But Phosdrin is still legal.

Today, the people who lived through the Goodson disaster look back on the past 5{ years with optimism and resignation. The doctors and lawyers are still pushing for reforms. But the workers, who come from as far as Guatemala, say they can only expect so much in a society that considers them expendable.

"I would hope that things would be better," said David Garcia, 31, who has a wife and two small children. "It's hard to put a price tag on it because we were so close to death.

"But the $900 they gave me, it's a joke."

Like a MASH unit

In a blue mobile home surrounded by dogs and rose bushes, Juan and Maria Vasquez hold hands in a dark living room.

He is 62, she is 67. Originally from the Mexican border state of Nuevo Leon, they moved to south Hillsborough in the late 1980s. Robert, their youngest child, came with them.

All three were at Goodson the day of the accident.

They remember the crisis beginning around lunchtime. Juan asked Maria: "How do you feel? Because my tongue feels like it's falling asleep." Maria says she looked at her husband and "his eyes were all red. Then he was sweating and sweating."

Others suffered stomachaches, nausea, blurry vision. Robert, 16 at the time, drove a carload of workers to the nearby Ruskin Migrant & Community Health Center.

When they arrived, the clinic was functioning as a kind of MASH unit. Its staff saw 84 Goodson patients that day, rushing 50 to hospitals.

"We saw people in the health center who came in walking," said Nursing Director Marlene Rivera. "And I would turn and they were collapsed on the floor, because it's like a nerve gas and it's absorbed through your pores."

Clinic Medical Director Dr. Dennis Penzell said the Phosdrin entered the workers' bodies in three ways: They inhaled it, absorbed it through their skin, or, for those who munched on the cauliflower, ate it.

Having seen her husband stooped in the field all morning, Maria Vasquez panicked. The clinic clocked her blood pressure at 212 over 96 and sent her to Tampa General Hospital.

Juan and Maria Vasquez never returned to work. Doctors discovered serious health problems that probably predated the pesticide poisoning _ a bad heart in Juan, diabetes and high blood pressure in Maria.

They had to wait six weeks for workers' compensation. They got emergency food supplies from the Good Samaritan Mission, a local charity. Then the workers' compensation ran out. Robert had to quit school in the ninth grade and work full time. He had dreamed of being a doctor.

The Vasquezes hoped for some relief from a group lawsuit against Goodson. For a time, there was talk of $15,000 settlements.

But the deal accepted by most of the group gave the Vasquezes only $2,000 apiece. Much of that went to lawyers' fees and expenses _ at one point, Juan said the lawyer tried to give him $660. That was a mistake, and Vasquez said he ended up with $1,050. His wife got about the same.

"A month's rent," Maria Vasquez said. "After we pay water and electricity, what's left over? Enough to buy dog food."

"An uphill case'

Donn Goodson, a prominent fruit and vegetable grower, did not respond to requests for an interview. Motorists can see his packing-house and U-pick signs as they drive through Balm, a rural community north of the largely Mexican-American Wimauma.

Lawsuits and government reports say someone working for Goodson applied the Phosdrin in the late afternoon or evening that Tuesday in November 1989.

According to label instructions, the sprayers should have closed the field for 48 hours to anyone not wearing protective clothing and posted warnings that the field had been sprayed.

Goodson did neither, the suits said. By 8 a.m. Wednesday, the field was being fully worked.

As word of the illnesses spread, government investigators descended on tiny Balm. The state Department of Agriculture accused Goodson of misusing the pesticide. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said he was not providing proper sanitation facilities.

At one point the state agency said Goodson's managers misled investigators. Those charges were later dropped. The agencies say Goodson paid $8,200 in fines. He lost his state license to apply powerful pesticides. For a while he had to hire an outside service if he wanted to treat his fields.

According to the Agriculture Department, Goodson never applied for a new license.

Amvac Chemical Corp., the California-based company that manufactured Phosdrin, increased the waiting period on the label from 48 hours to 72.

The case caught the attention of Florida Rural Legal Services, a public-interest law firm.

But it took years to get it to court.

The lawyers consulted with Washington experts and shopped for a personal-injury firm.

No one, it seemed, wanted the case. They knew it is hard to prove permanent damage from pesticides because the science is sketchy and farm workers move around a lot. Many, like the Vasquezes, have poor health, making it even harder to prove damages.

Most of all, lawyers knew the laborers had received workers' compensation. Goodson was bound to argue that under state law they had waived their right to sue.

Finally the prominent West Palm Beach firm of Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley stepped in. It sued in Hillsborough Circuit Court on behalf of 29 workers in 1993.

Goodson and his attorney denied the allegations. They tried to convince the judge that the workers should file individually. They said the workers could not prove intentional harm.

Then Goodson offered to settle. Searcy, Denney lawyer David Sales said the amounts generally ranged from $2,000 to $10,000. There was a meeting in November at Good Samaritan. Legal Services' Greg Schell came, bringing a Mexican-American lawyer, and labor leader Fernando Cuevas.

Schell says he wanted to keep fighting. He wanted, and still wants, to set a precedent _ that an employer who knowingly exposes his workers to danger can be held liable even after workers' compensation. He says such a precedent is more effective than government regulation, which cannot keep up with the proliferation of pesticides.

But he did not want to mislead the workers. "We were very honest," he said. "We told them it was an uphill case."

Mendoza, the crew leader, settled. Most of the others did the same. Sales and Schell are still pursuing the case for the handful of workers who remain.

Rivera, of the clinic, said she thinks the workers were steered toward settling. "They were convinced that this was their best choice, that this was the only way they would get some money," she said.

But the lawyers insist the workers made an informed decision.

"Perhaps they just wanted to put the whole painful experience behind them," Schell said.

Constant stimulation

In every human body there is an enzyme called cholinesterase. Most of us have never heard of it. But for a time, it was a common word among people at the Ruskin clinic.

Cholinesterase allows the body to break down neurotransmitters. In plain English, it stops a person from feeling constant nerve stimulation.

Mevinphos, the chemical known by the trade name Phosdrin, attaches itself to cholinesterase and renders it inactive. With overexposure it produces all kinds of discomfort _ headaches, nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps, twitching under the skin.

In extreme cases, Ruskin clinic director Penzell said, fluids and secretions can fill the lungs, causing death.

In the months after the accident, the clinic gauged the patients' abilities to return to the fields by measuring cholinesterase levels. Some remained unstable for months, even though the symptoms were tolerable. The doctors feared a new exposure would be risky. But the patients felt ready to work. "This was a dilemma for us because they need the money," Rivera said.

Mendoza urged his workers to listen to the doctors. He says Goodson punished him for this _ after some 10 years at the farm, he was told he no longer had a job.

Not everyone heeded the doctors' warnings. Some went back to work too soon and suffered relapses.

Andrea Lugo, David Garcia's wife, took a job picking oranges and then complained to the clinic of headaches and twitching. David said he gets headaches even today, though they cannot pinpoint the cause.

In far worse shape, they say, was David's younger sister, Angelica Garcia.

Angelica weighed just 90 pounds the day of the accident. The chemical was absorbed directly into her bloodstream. "When we got to the clinic, she couldn't even walk," Lugo said.

Angelica spent about a week in a hospital. An inspector for the Environmental Protection Agency visited her and said she had a seizure during the interview.

"I saw her arch her back, her face contorted, and her eyes rolled into the back of her head," the inspector wrote in her report. "She was unable to verbally respond to anyone."

Phosdrin's dangers are no secret. The EPA in 1993 ranked mevinphos as the most harmful of 28 pesticides _ worse than parathion, which was banned for most uses in 1991.

The agency and Amvac agreed on a schedule last year that would have phased Phosdrin out by the end of February.

But in a development that enraged farm worker advocates, that agreement was renegotiated.

One reason, according to the EPA, was that California had passed its own Phosdrin restrictions, creating a glut of the product and making the recall more expensive than anticipated. The EPA did not want to take Amvac to court and risk having to leave the product on the market.

As a compromise, growers and distributors were given until the end of this November to use up their supply. Amvac agreed to repurchase all unopened containers of Phosdrin in a recall that the EPA called "exemplary."

Farm worker advocates say the Phosdrin extension was just one more example of regulatory foot-dragging. They say another is the Worker Protection Standard, a body of regulations that are supposed to train and inform workers about pesticides.

Though dating back to the Reagan administration, the Worker Protection Standard still is not fully implemented. There are exemptions for people who inspect crop damage. The required training does not differentiate between chemicals. Workers can spend 15 days in pesticide-treated areas without having received any training, an interval that will be reduced to five days next year.

And the enforcement system relies on complaints instead of inspections, even though farm workers by nature rarely challenge their employers. "Whoever complains, the next day they cannot go back to work," said Dora Cruz of Good Samaritan.

EPA spokesman Albert Heier acknowledged that implementation of the Worker Protection Standard has come slowly, largely because of pressure from Congress and growers. "The regulations are being compromised, there's no question about it," he said. "But the alternative is no regulations at all."

Cruz, however, does not see any real improvement for workers. "It's the same as five years ago," she said.

"When they come to the day care and they grab their children, we are so sad because they are covered with pesticides."

Greater awareness

In the past 5{ years the Ruskin clinic has expanded and changed its name to Suncoast Community Health Centers.

Penzell and Rivera still work at the stark white building, which could use a coat of paint. Both have spoken about the Goodson crisis at professional gatherings and won accolades for their work.

Penzell, though still frustrated about a lack of research on the long-term effects of pesticides, says the incident raised awareness.

He describes a patient who visited him recently with an eye problem. The man said he had been applying a pesticide a few days earlier when the hose came off the sprayer and drenched him. "He immediately took off his overalls," Penzell said. "He was home within eight minutes and showered. He said he had just seen a training video."

Overall, Penzell said, "I see activity. Granted, there's still a lot of BS. I see things happening slowly. While it is slow, there is a risk for very serious accidents. And as long as Phosdrin is in use, people are at risk of dying."

He and Rivera face other challenges today. Federal budget cuts and changes in the health delivery system are forcing them to work within tighter budgets. Public opinion has turned against immigrants, particularly illegal aliens, and the clinic faces the painful prospect of turning patients away.

Maria Vasquez, meanwhile, tends to her three dogs and her rose garden.

Robert, 21, works in a dairy. He does not expect to finish high school, much less medical school. His parents cry a lot, he said. "Before, they had a lot of energy. They used to run before. They can barely walk today."

Mendoza, 52, travels from Balm to Maine to Texas for work. He has two sons who work at Goodson. He became something of an activist after the accident, testifying to Congress about pesticides in 1993.

He complains that growers do not pay fairly for such hard work.

Yet he stays with it.

"The truth is, I have always liked farm work, and I have always done it," he said. "I know the machinery, working with the tractors, driving the trucks. And it would be hard for me to do any other kind of work because I don't speak English."

David Garcia and Andrea Lugo were married shortly after the accident. They work at a plant nursery today. Conditions are safer and the money is better, they said _ about $550 a week combined. They live in a brand-new double-wide mobile home in Wimauma.

They have a 4-year-old son, Juan Manuel, and a 2-year-old daughter, Cynthia. Andrea Lugo Garcia, frightened of pesticides, left work during both pregnancies.

Looking back, David said, "I am very disillusioned with the laws in Florida. I feel badly because we were almost at the point of death and we still don't know what the long-term consequences will be."

His sister, Angelica, the one doctors say really could have died, could not be reached for comment. According to David, she went to Mexico for a while.

She is back in Wimauma, he said, and working at Goodson Farms.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement