On a cool November day in 2009, farmworker Jovita Alfau was transplanting hibiscus as she'd been instructed in a section of Power Bloom Farms and Growers nursery in Homestead, Fla.
As she began pulling up the seedlings from the pots, she began to "feel dizzy and weak, experienced numbness in her mouth and vomited," according to a complaint she would later file against her employer in federal district court in southern Florida.
Alfau had no idea why she was feeling so ill, but lawyers from the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project representing her in the lawsuit learned through deposition that the area of the nursery where the hibiscus grew had been sprayed with the pesticide endosulfan less than 24 hours earlier, according to the lawsuit. Her employer allegedly failed to warn her about the required elapse time before it was safe to enter. Alfau had been wearing no protective gear.
Alfau alleges in the lawsuit that there were times when the applicators sprayed the nursery even while she and her fellow farmworkers were tending the plants.
The nursery denied wrongdoing, but settled with the then 43-year-old single mother of three in 2012 for $100,000. Asked by New America Media recently whether his nursery was still using endosulfan, Power Bloom president Steve Power said he had no comment.
It was pesticide poisonings like Alfau's, as well as years of pressure from a broad coalition of environmentalists, health care advocates, farmworkers and scientists, that many believe was responsible for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's announcement of a six-year phase-out of the pesticide in 2010.
The federal agency negotiated an agreement with the compound's sole manufacturer, Makhteshim Agan, based in Israel at the time, to stop using the pesticide crop-by-crop.
In an email justifying the long phase-out, the agency said that it needed to give growers "time to research and adopt lower risk alternatives," especially for crops with limited choices.
The EPA acknowledged that even though it had not fully addressed all of the ecological and human health risk concerns regarding endosulfan, it had taken a number of mitigation measures to make its use safer.
Environmentalists and advocates were upset. The chemical's use would continue for years, even eight years after the federal agency said on its own website that endosulfan "can pose unacceptable neurological and reproductive risks to farmworkers and wildlife, and can persist in the environment."
Birds and mammals that consume aquatic prey that have ingested endosulfan are also at risk, the EPA said.
"The longer it is used, the longer it can stay in the environment and endanger human life," said Jeannie Economos, pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator with the Farmworker Association of Florida, a 10,000-strong statewide membership organization. "When the EPA determined it was a dangerous pesticide, its use should have been abruptly terminated."
Even before the EPA's taper-off announcement, around 80 countries had either banned the pesticide or put it onto a phase-out track, after determining it was unsafe. For example, Australia ended its use in 2010, after the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority declared that there was "substantial evidence" that the pesticide was highly toxic "for most animal groups."
Health Scientists Weigh In
"Endosulfan is a highly, highly, highly toxic insecticide," said Prof. Syed M. Naqvi, an environmental toxicologist who studied the pesticide's impact on fresh water animals while a professor at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., in the 1990s. Naqvi published his findings in The Journal of Environmental Health and Science.
"If humans are exposed to it," he said, "it can cause serious health impacts."
Other animal studies worldwide also have shown that endosulfan can damage the nervous system, kidney, liver and male reproductive organs. In female rats, offspring were born prematurely.
"At sufficiently high doses, endosulfan may cause seizures, vomiting and convulsions in animals and humans," said Marilyn Silva, a scientist in the pesticide programs division of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR), noting that her understanding of endosulfan toxicity is "based primarily on animal studies."
Silva went on to say that even though "the primary target for its toxic effects is the central nervous system," endosulfan could also be "toxic to other organs and systems in animals and possibly in humans."
CDPR studies also show that after oral treatment in rats - widely considered as a strong stand-in for humans in toxicological testing - the liver and kidney were the sites of greatest endosulfan concentration.
Dr. B.D. Banerjee, who teaches biochemistry, immunology and environmental toxicology at the University College of Medical Sciences, University of Delhi, found that high levels of the pesticide were responsible for pre-term births in Delhi women. His study was published in 2008 in the peer-reviewed journal Human and Experimental Toxicology. Early birth is linked to many negative health outcomes later in life.
"When pesticides enter the bodies of pregnant women, the pesticides manifest in the babies as illness and disease," he said.
Banerjee speculates it could take generations for people and the land in India to recover from endosulfan poisoning.
A 2007 study by scientists with the California Department of Public Health found that babies born to women living near fields where either dicofol or endosulfan had been used during the course of their pregnancy were more likely to develop autism than those who did not.
In a policy statement on pediatric pesticide exposure for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. James R. Roberts, a professor of pediatrics with the Medical University of South Carolina, notes that "children are uniquely vulnerable to uptake and adverse effects of pesticides because of developmental, dietary, and physiologic factors. Exposure occurs through ingestion, inhalation, or dermal [skin] contact."
Endosulfan, like DDT, belongs to the organochlorine family, an early generation of farm chemicals that are notably persistent in the environment and animal tissue. It has been used in the United States since 1954 to kill mites and insects. It is often referred to as "DDT's cousin." Although DDT was banned in the United States for its toxicity in 1972, high concentrations of it are still found in the Arctic. Like DDT, endosulfan can travel long distances via air and water currents.
In soil, it does not break down, but binds tightly to it. The same thing happens in tissue.
"If it's an organochlorine, it lasts in the human body for a long time," accumulating in the fatty tissue, said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an environmental epidemiologist at UC Davis.
Lower-level exposure to the pesticide also commonly occurs by eating food contaminated with it. The pesticide has been found in food products including oils, fats, and fruit and vegetable products.
People also can be exposed to endosulfan by skin contact with contaminated soil or foliage, or by smoking cigarettes made from tobacco that has endosulfan residue in it, according to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
So why was the pesticide given such a long phase-out time?
There is "lots of evidence" of "inappropriate industry influence" of pesticide companies on regulatory agencies when it comes to making decisions to restrict pesticide use, said Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA), an organization that has been in the forefront of efforts to get the EPA to ban endosulfan use.
But the EPA defended the long phase-out, saying that after consulting with scientists in 2008, it made a "new risk assessment approach for chemicals which are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic" and came up with the phase-out schedule.
Environmental Disaster in India
Human rights activists say the EPA should have paid greater attention to the environmental disaster that occurred in India in the 1980s and 1990s - the fallout from which still continues. It is blamed for killing about 700 villagers in Kasargod District in the southern Indian state of Kerala, and maiming 8,000 more, according to C. Jayakumar of the Kerala-based public interest research group, Thanal. Jayakumar, who is on the steering committee of the International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network, is one of the best-known environmental activists in southern India.
Physician Dr. Y.S. Mohan Kumar, who is also a longtime Kasargod District resident, said endosulfan was aerially sprayed "indiscriminately" on cashew plantations in and around his district between 1976 and 2000. The spraying happened two or three times a year over the 24-year period. The plantations are owned by the Kerala government, which earns large revenues from exporting cashews.
Because no warnings were given to residents, children and adults, fascinated by the sight of low-flying helicopters, would stand in the fields to watch, in the direct path of the spray, he said. Little children would run in the fields, trying to catch the pesticide droplets.
"All the warning that was given was contained in hand-written notes pasted on the walls of some schools and a local pharmacy asking people not to let their cattle graze in the treated areas," Kumar said.
By the early 1980s, there were signs that there was something amiss in and around areas where the pesticide had been sprayed. People reported cattle born with deformed legs. Peacocks disappeared, as did snakes and fish from bodies of water near the village of Padre, one of the cashew growing areas.
No other agricultural chemical was used in the area at the time.
"That was the one and only pesticide that was sprayed on the cashew plantations," said Kumar.
It wasn't until the 1990s that he and other doctors noticed that cases of epilepsy and cancer had spiked in adults, and more and more children were being born with twisted and emaciated limbs, missing fingers and toes, swollen heads and with blindness, among other physical abnormalities. Scores of them displayed cognitive disorders, according to Kumar, who saw them firsthand as patients poured into his Padre clinic.
When pregnant women are acutely exposed to organochlorines like endosulfan, the chemicals can enter the bloodstream and reach the embryo through the placenta, said Naqvi. "When nature tries to repair the chromosomes that get ruptured by the chemicals, sometimes the sequencing goes awry, resulting in babies born with skeletal disorders," he said.
There is Shruti - she goes by one name only - now 22, born with a twisted leg and only four fingers in each hand, with those on her right hand malformed. Vishnu Batt, 32, has physical abnormalities so severe his growth is stunted and his legs deformed. Batt suffers seizures and he is also developmentally delayed, according to Dr. Mohammed Asheel, who continues to work with endosulfan victims in Kasargod.
In nearly half of the homes in the village of Padre there is a child or an adult with severe disabilities or abnormalities even today - 15 years after the Kerala government banned the use of the pesticide, following an outcry from victims' families, environmentalists and human rights activists.
But some others say it is difficult to determine whether all the health issues of the residents of Kasargod can be linked to the spraying. Research has not conclusively established the carcinogenicity of endosulfan. There was poor documentation of the spraying by the Kerala government. Many of the patients lack medical records. Some impacted families did not even want their neighbors to know of their exposure, fearing stigma, Jayaram said.
India's Supreme Court Bans Endosulfan
Enough momentum had built around India's "ban endosulfan" campaign by 2011 for its Supreme Court to broaden the Kerala government's statewide ban on the pesticide from 10 years earlier. Over the objections of the pesticide industry and farmers, the court ruled that endosulfan could no longer be produced, distributed or used anywhere in India. India had been one of the biggest producers of endosulfan and exported it to some 50 countries. Between 2007 and 2008, the country's exports totaled more than $150 million.
But "banning does not mean anything in India because bans are loosely implemented here," noted Amit Khurana, program manager of Food Safety and Toxins with the Center for Environment and Science, a New Delhi-based public interest research group.
Just a month before India's Supreme Court handed down its decision, 80 countries had ratified the Stockholm Convention, a binding international treaty on persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
Endosulfan was included on the list of POPs because it met all the criteria - persistence, bioaccumulation, toxicity, and potential for long-range environmental transport.
"The endosulfan tragedy in India factored very much in the discussions at the convention," said Pamela Miller, executive director of the Alaska Community Action on Toxins (ACAT).
Pesticide Found in the Arctic
Endosulfan's impact is not limited to the regions where it was most heavily applied. Studies have shown that wind drifts have carried the pesticide to the Arctic, to people whose outward lives could not be more different from those of farmworkers in Florida or India.
Eva Kruemmel, an environmental toxicologist with the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which represents 160,000 Inuit in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia, pointed this out to the Stockholm Convention delegates: "Endosulfan has been found in considerable levels in the Arctic environment. It is unquestionable that endosulfan is subject to long-range transport, and it has been found in traditional food sources of Arctic indigenous peoples, including fish, seabird eggs, seals, and other marine mammals."
Persistent pollutants such as endosulfan accumulate in the animal fat-rich food webs of northern environments. Artic indigenous peoples have the highest levels of POPs contamination in blood and breast milk of "any population on earth," even though almost none of the chemicals have ever been used there, Miller said.
Endosulfan is not, of course, the only poison accumulating in the northern peoples. They carry dangerously heavy loads of mercury and other fat- binding contaminants. Smoking and alcoholism are also serious problems across much of the far North, as they are on many reservations, making it hard to blame endosulfan alone for the health issues that plague Arctic indigenous people.
Yet, endosulfan is on the radar there. Kruemmel warned that if the pesticide continues to be used even on farms as far away as Florida, "concentrations in the Arctic environment will further contribute to the already existing contamination of the traditional food sources that Arctic indigenous peoples rely on."
There are currently 179 parties that have ratified the Stockholm Convention (178 states and the European Union). Countries that have not yet ratified are Brunei, Israel, Italy, Malaysia, Malta and the United States.
The United States said it could not ratify the treaty because other federal laws would have to be changed first.
"There's no political will in Congress to do that," asserted Reeves of PANNA. "Also, there's a general lack of interest in Congress to joining up with international initiatives."
Continued Use in the US
Endosulfan's use worldwide has diminished significantly over the last few years. Yet even today, it continues to be used by U.S. farmers. The EPA estimated nationwide use in 2010 to be about 380,000 pounds and the use in 2013 - the most recent data available - to be about 80,000 pounds.
Growers in the United States can still use it on strawberry and pineapple crops under the EPA's phase-out program. The pesticide is also allowed to be used for seed harvesting on broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, radish, mustard greens, raddish, rutabaga and turnip crops.
Florida is the top user of the pesticide because the state's humid growing conditions require the pesticide to be reapplied more often.
"High humidity essentially increases the breakdown of pesticides and lessens their effectiveness over time," explained William Griffin, superintendent of the Fresno County Agricultural Commission's pesticide division.
In California, the state that grows nearly half of the nation's agricultural produce, endosulfan use has dropped 98 percent, from 83,302 pounds in 2005 to 1,833 pounds in 2013, the most recent statistics available with the CDPR. The six top-use counties were Fresno, Kings, Imperial, Kern, Tulare, and Riverside. Most endosulfan use in the state was on tomato crops, according to the CDPR.
As of July, use on tomatoes has stopped, as part of the phase-out.
Less Harmful Alternatives
Stuart Woolf co-owns and operates the 40-year-old, 25,000-acre Woolf Farming Co. in Fresno County. The bulk of the tomatoes grown on the farm make their way to the farm's state-of-the-art tomato processing plant to be turned into paste. A bottle of Heinz ketchup more than likely contains tomatoes grown on his Fresno farm.
Woolf said that since he began reducing endosulfan use on his farm last year, he has lost $4 million to "massive infestations" of stinkbugs that attacked his tomatoes.
He said he has begun planting a "trap crop," by seeding small, flowering plants like marigold close to the crops so the stinkbugs will be attracted to those and leave his tomatoes alone.
"But that's a risky game," Woolf said. There is no guarantee the tomato plants will be safe from the bugs. "You need a contact material to keep those bugs away."
Endosulfan is also hard for farmers to give up because it is relatively inexpensive, Griffin at the Fresno County Agricultural Commission acknowledged. "But there are chemicals that do a better job with less environmental impact," he said.
In general, nearly all the insecticides currently on the market are more recently developed and less toxic than endosulfan, said Richard Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State University. "[They] can serve as an alternative depending on the specific use."
His years of working with organic farmers worldwide has convinced him that even the best agro-ecological practices are no match for some pests, like the cotton bollworm, Roush said.
PANNA's campaign coordinator Medha Chandra dismisses the claim. She said that a number of West African countries have successfully moved to organic cotton farming in the last decade or so. One of West Africa's top cotton exporters, Burkina Faso, became the world's tenth largest organic cotton producer in 2008, according to Organic Exchange.
No Mandatory Pesticide Reporting
Just how many farmworkers suffer from pesticide exposure like Alfau, the former Florida nursery worker, is hard to know, said attorney Gregory S. Schell of the Migrant Farmworkers Justice Project, which represented Alfau. Schell notes that there is no nationwide mandatory pesticide poisoning reporting system.
When Alfau went to the emergency room at Homestead Hospital after being exposed to endosulfan in 2009, the doctor who initially treated her did not even diagnose her illness as being caused by pesticide exposure, possibly because she did not think it was important to tell him what kind of work she did, Alfau said in Spanish through an interpreter. An environmental medical specialist her attorneys later hired said her symptoms were typical of pesticide exposure, according to Schell.
After Alfau sued the nursery, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) - the pesticide law-enforcement agency - investigated the nursery, but found no fault with it, Schell said, adding that the state agency "views its job as being a cheerleader for agriculture," and does not have the interest of farmworkers at heart.
FDACS did not respond to requests for a comment.
Alfau's co-workers, who were also exposed to the pesticide that day in November 2009, according to Alfau, would not corroborate her description of what happened. She attributes this to fear of retribution.
Miguel Zelaya of the Farmworker Association of Florida, which trains farmworkers on how to protect themselves from pesticide exposure, said he's not surprised.
"It would have cost them their jobs," he said. "They might have worried about getting deported."
Alfau was never able to go back to work after getting sick at Power Bloom nursery. She bought a trailer home in Homestead with the settlement money.
She believes that years of pesticide exposure have taken a toll on her. She's now 46, blind in one eye and with partial vision in the other. She also has high blood pressure and renal failure and requires dialysis three times a week.
No one can say for sure if her health issues are a direct result of pesticide exposure, but data from animal studies show the organs most likely to be affected from endosulfan exposure are the kidneys and liver.
The Mexican native said her monthly $730 disability checks are barely enough to care for herself and her family. Food stamps, she said, only go so far.
Alfau's 22-year-old daughter, Yuriana, said she had to quit college three years ago to take care of her mother.
Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the long-awaited revised agricultural Worker Protection Standards, updating rules that have been in effect since 1992. The new rules will go into effect 14 months from now.
There's very little data on how many farmworkers are exposed to dangerous pesticides, though the EPA estimates that 10,000 to 20,000 workers are poisoned by pesticides each year.
Even though farmworker advocates say the rules don't go far enough, they make some significant safety measures to protect the nearly 2 million farmworkers in U.S. agriculture, the majority of whom are immigrants. The rules include requiring providing increased training for workers handling pesticides from the current five years to annually, improved notification of pesticide applications and requiring the minimum age of children handling pesticides to be 18 years.
Other revisions include:
- Expanded postings of no-entry signs on fields treated with hazardous pesticides.
- Handler must apply pesticides so as not to contact others.
- Provide prompt transportation to medical facility and let medical personnel know the active ingredient in the pesticide and circumstances of exposure.
This story was reported from India, Alaska and California, and funded by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.