An Idaho State Department of Agriculture investigation into an incident in Parma that sent 12 farmworkers to the hospital could not definitively say what substance sickened the workers, but investigators concluded some were likely exposed to a fungicide sprayed on adjacent fields.
A crop duster contracted by Obendorf Farms to spray a neighboring field likely caused the illnesses of some farm workers, the department report concluded.
On May 26, roughly 20 Corral Agriculture farmworkers were working in a hops field, owned by Obendorf Hops, when the application of Badge SC, a fungicide/bactericide, began in the neighboring Obendorf Farms onion field.
According to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s investigation, one of those workers was transported to West Valley Medical Center in Caldwell by their spouse with symptoms of semi-consciousness and increased salivation. Later that afternoon about a dozen other workers arrived at the hospital with symptoms of nausea and headaches.
In the report, the department said none of the laboratories they contacted could test for compounds found in Badge SC, Copper Oxychloride and Copper Hydroxide, which could have caused the illness in the workers.
The Southwest District Health analyzed the medical records of the workers admitted into the hospital with symptoms of pesticide exposure and concluded that 10 of the workers may have been exposed to Badge SC.
The Department of Agriculture report of the incident found Valley Air LLC pilot Jose Perez had applied Badge SC to the onion field. Phil Obendorf, owner of Obendorf Farms, delivered the chemical to Valley Air on May 26. The report said he did not intend to have workers on the fields during the application of the Badge SC and was unaware of the workers in the hops field. The hops field is owned by Obendorf Hops.
Perez told investigators he turned off his spray when he saw the workers in the hops field. The Department of Agriculture found, using flight tracking data, that the spray was turned on immediately upon reentering the onion field.
According to the department’s investigation, some farmworkers said they felt the plane spray fungicide on them.
On Thursday, the department sent Perez a regulatory letter for his “careless application of Badge SC,” the report said.
“Even though he made some accommodations to minimize the potential for spraying the workers, Mr. Perez decided to make his application in a manner that increased the probability for exposing a large group of people to the pesticide, when it was avoidable,” a summary of the investigation said.
In the letter to Perez, Kevin Kostka, the Department of Agriculture’s pesticide compliance program manager wrote, “During the ISDA’s investigation, you stated you knew the workers were in the neighboring field at the time you evaluated the wind conditions. Yet, you began spraying immediately afterward. You did not provide the workers any chance to leave or move to an area further away prior to beginning your application.”
Kostka’s letter asked for further explanation from Perez about how he would prevent the violation in the future in 14 days. If Perez does not respond, formal enforcement action would be initiated from the Department of Agriculture.
In interviews with the farmworkers, ISDA also concluded decontamination supplies such as soap, water and hand towels were not provided to the workers in the hop field, a requirement of the Worker Protection Standard. The report from the department stated they would be following up with Obendorf Hops to ensure the workers are provided with supplies in the future.
Julie Fischer, an attorney for Obendorf Farms, said the farm takes worker safety very seriously and they “invest a significant amount in worker safety every year.”
The last reported pesticide exposure case that sent several people to the hospital was in July 2005. Twenty-two farmworkers in Caldwell were hospitalized after coming in contact with pesticides that were placed on an onion field the night before, according to a report from Farmworker Justice. The farm was fined for failing to provide proper safety information at a central location on site.
— Reporter Emily Lowe contributed to this report.