Focal Point: Practical Application

Posted August 20, 2008 7:00 p.m. EDT
Updated November 4, 2013 4:05 p.m. EST

Original air date: Aug. 20, 2008

There are about 54,000 farmers in North Carolina. Most of them use pesticides on their crops to control insects and disease. That means the roughly 88,000 farm workers who help cultivate and harvest those crops come into contact with dangerous pesticides on a regular basis.

Using proper precautions greatly reduces the risk, but it’s up to farmers to train workers how to protect themselves when working around pesticides, to provide them with the protective equipment they need, such as goggles and gloves, and to make sure they have adequate shower facilities so they can wash off pesticide residue.

Although there were only about 20 reported cases of pesticide poisoning on North Carolina farms in 2007, farm-worker advocates say the problem is much bigger than it appears, because workers are afraid to report violations out of fear of losing their jobs and housing.

Under Department of Agricultural regulations, workers have no guarantee of confidentiality if they file a complaint, like they do under Department of Labor regulations.

The issue of farm worker exposure to pesticides got the state’s attention when several women working for Ag-Mart, a large tomato grower with fields in southeastern North Carolina, blamed the company’s use of pesticides for their children’s birth defects. A judge threw out most of the state’s charges against Ag-Mart because the company’s pesticide records did not back up the state’s case and because, under state law, the violations have to be proven as “willful."

The case prompted Gov. Mike Easley to appoint a task force in January 2008 to look into the issue of farm worker exposure to pesticides. The task force made recommendations to the General Assembly, some of which passed, but farm-worker advocates say the effort falls far short of what is needed to protect workers from pesticide exposure. They worry that the state agency that enforces pesticide regulations puts the interests of the agricultural industry ahead of worker safety.

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Hosted by WRAL News' Cullen Browder, Focal Point: Practical Application examines the issue of worker safety in the application of agricultural pesticides in North Carolina.

Focal Point: Practical Application

Focal Point extras

In January 2008, Gov. Mike Easley appointed a task force to look at regulations regarding pesticide exposure among farm workers in North Carolina and to make recommendations for improvements that would better protect workers.

The task force submitted its recommendations to the Legislature. They included requests for $1.6 million in funding and some changes in pesticide regulations. The Legislature adopted the following task force recommendations and approved about $350,000 in funding.

  • A law to prevent employers from retaliating against workers who file pesticide complaints
  • A rule requiring applicators to maintain records for two years
  • A rule requiring applicators to record the time they finish spraying a field
  • Funding for two positions to help with farm-worker training
  • Funding to improve data tracking at the Division of Public Health and the Pesticides Division at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, as well as additional quality controls at the Pesticides Division

Read the recommendations of the Governor's Task Force on Agricultural Pesticide Exposure.

Online resources

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Host: Cullen Browder
Writer/Producer: Clay Johnson
Photographer/Editor: Jay Jennings
Research & Production Assistant: Laura Riddle