Since February, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) has been monitoring cholinesterase levels in farm workers throughout the state, working to ensure that workers are not being overexposed to different pesticides.
According to Elaine Fischer with L&I public affairs and the United Farm Workers of America, as of May 12, 2,668 baseline tests have been administered across the state, with 345 follow-up tests having been taken. Of those 345 people who received follow-up testing, 82 employees working for 27 different growers were identified to have depressed cholinesterase levels, which warranted a work place investigation. An additional 20 workers were identified as having been exposed to pesticides to such a degree they couldn't perform any additional work duties that could result in additional exposure.
Fischer said the work place investigations will include an evaluation of pesticide application techniques at the 27 farms, as well as taking a look at the sanitation facilities that are offered.
Fischer said the percentage of tests that are coming back showing depressed cholinesterase levels in workers is within the range of what L&I estimated it would see. She also pointed out that although L&I did have an estimate, what they are seeing now is the true baseline as far as how many workers are actually being exposed to these pesticides.
"The first year represents the reality of what is out there," Fischer said.
Erik Nicholson, Pacific Northwest regional director for the United Farm Workers of America, said the results of the tests show that farm workers are continuing to suffer from dangerous levels of exposure to toxic pesticides.
"These numbers, so early in the spray season, clearly establish the need for this regulation," Nicholson said.
Fischer said that as the season continues, farmers in the area will move into applying different pesticides for different crops. "We'll see as time goes on," Fischer said, noting that the different pesticides could mean different test results.
According to the United Farm Workers of America, while the data being collected establishes that farm workers are being over-exposed to pesticides, L&I could not confirm that any of the exposed workers had been removed from job duties that would result in additional exposure.
"We want to make sure these workers are receiving the full protection afforded to them under this regulation," Nicholson said.
Under the rule, workers who work with pesticides receive a blood test prior to the spray season to establish a baseline for the cholinesterase enzyme. Once they have worked with two classes of pesticides for 50 hours in a 30-day period, they go in for a periodic blood draw. If there is a 20 to 29 percent depression of cholinesterase, the regulation calls for a work place investigation. Depressions of 30 percent or more mandate the removal of the employee from any duties that would require additional exposure to pesticides.