Near the end of a recent meeting of the N.C. Pesticide Board, members went through the settlement agreements that had been reached to penalize those that had violated the N.C. Pesticide Law of 1971. One case opened my eyes to the risk of pesticide exposure due to mishandling in North Carolina.
It was the case of a family of four, including a young daughter and an infant, in Duplin County. One night, the family began to smell a strong odor inside their home. Their young daughter reacted the worst to the odor, and her eyes hurt so badly that the father awoke to her crying on the couch because she could not sleep that night. As the smell remained over days, the family notified the local fire department.
Four firefighters responded and noticed the odor was even stronger outside the home and seemed to be coming from the field across the street. The firefighters began to experience the same burning eyes, breathing difficulties and ill feelings that the daughter had felt. The family was told to leave their home, and the firefighters were transported to a hospital where they were diagnosed with poisoning from exposure to the pesticide chloropicrin.
Chloropicrin is a fumigant used to rid the soil of insects before planting a crop, in this case tobacco. Originally, though, chloropicrin was used in World War I in chemical warfare. This chemical has a deadly history, but lower concentrations of it are still being used in agricultural commodities to this day.
The N.C. Department of Agriculture found in its investigation that the farmer who administered the soil fumigation did not have a current private pesticide applicators license. It had expired two years prior to the application. Also, there were no sufficient buffer zones, and no signs were placed around the fumigation site. Upon further investigation, the farmer was found to have violated at least four provisions found in the EPA’s Worker Protection Standards: not maintaining a list of recently applied pesticides, not cleaning and maintaining protective gear, not providing protective gear for applicators and not training one worker in pesticide training in over five years. This endangered not only the farmer, but also the farmworkers helping with the fumigation.
After all was said and done with the investigation, the board decided the farmer who applied the fumigation would pay a penalty of $2,400 so not to have to go to court over the matter. This was after a family of four, including an infant and a small child, and four firefighters had all exhibited chemical reactions to this potentially deadly pesticide exposure.
This case was one of many that come before the N.C. Pesticide Board every year and is not atypical of how we treat pesticide exposures in the United States. There is something terribly wrong when people can be exposed to chemicals that are designed to kill, through misapplication and a complete disregard for the law, and the person applying them gets only a $2,400 fine. Something is seriously backward in our state.
North Carolinians must become aware of the dangers of these deadly chemicals and hold the people who make decisions around these exposures accountable. Our family, friends and other loved ones must not tolerate living in a state where chemicals are used indiscriminately, without question, and therefore endanger our lives. We have to get more people to these N.C. Pesticide Board meetings and make public comments when necessary. We must resoundingly say, “Enough is enough.”
Preston Peck is a policy advocate for Toxic Free North Carolina in Raleigh.