Senate Bill 6529, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, would create a work group to review data from the Department of Health on pesticide-exposure incidents.
OLYMPIA — Viviana Silvia had been a farmworker since the age of 14, but ever since she was exposed to pesticides while working, she can no longer help pick the produce that feeds the state.
Silvia, now 36, is one of 20 farmworkers who became sickened after being exposed to pesticides that drifted from a neighboring farm in Douglas County, according to a 2014 lawsuit.
That lawsuit was settled and led to a report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that concluded better communication between farms might have prevented the exposure.
State lawmakers are now considering legislation aimed at reducing such pesticide exposures in a way that’s agreeable by all parties.
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Senate Bill 6529, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, would create a work group to review data from the state Department of Health on pesticide-exposure incidents and recommend ways to avoid them.
The bill passed in the Senate on a 45-2 vote and passed the House 57-41 Wednesday evening. It’s now before Gov. Jay Inslee, who must decide whether to sign it into law.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who voted against it, said the measure is unnecessary because agencies already exist at the state and federal level that deal with this issue.
In the 2014 case, 16 workers sought medical help for their symptoms, with six suffering moderate-severity illness and the rest low severity, according to the CDC report.
Silvia said the exposure has left her sensitive to pesticides. She experiences headaches, nausea and a loss of appetite, and her husband had to quit his job as a pesticide applicator because the residual chemicals on his clothes triggered her reactions, she said.
Department of Health data show that 1,331 people became sick from pesticide exposure between 2010 and 2016. More than 500 of those were farmworkers, and more than half the incidents involving them were due to drift.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency provides guidelines for how to safely apply pesticides, but enforcement is up to the states.
Washington doesn’t require farmers to notify their surrounding community when they’re applying pesticides.
The proposal in SB 6529 is similar to previous use of advisory groups that have studied data collected by the Department of Health (DOH). Unlike those groups, members this time would be required under the current bill to come up with recommendations by November to prevent exposure to drift.
Some agency officials, academics and even some farm lobbying groups have already pointed to a solution: a comprehensive notification system.
“The question is, how can you most effectively notify people who aren’t employees of the farm?” said Washington State Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney.
The Tree Fruit Association and other farmer groups support the current bill, but didn’t support the original version that would have required farmers to notify DOH four days in advance of applying pesticides.
Applying pesticides is based on variable conditions, and farmers sometimes have to make decisions moments before using them, said Heather Hansen, from Washington Friends of Farms and Forests.
Saldaña agreed advance notification isn’t feasible but that more could be done to address the issue, even though it can’t be resolved during this short legislative session scheduled to end next week.
The Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health (PNASH) Center, a CDC-funded program in the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, published a review in 2016 of different agricultural notification systems around the world that concluded establishing such a system would prevent pesticide exposure due to drift.
Richard Fenske, the associate chair of the department and PNASH director, said the review conclusion wasn’t accepted by the agriculture industry because of longtime controversy surrounding pesticide regulations in the state.
“They didn’t like it … they saw what we were doing as one step down to mandatory notifications, and they didn’t want to start down that road,” he said.
That seems to be the case this session as SB 6529 was transformed from a mandatory notification bill into another work group.
In an email, Joanne Prado, a pesticide-illness-surveillance epidemiologist from the DOH, said “ineffective communication at many levels, including advance notice of applications, is a factor in many of our illness cases.”