This story was supported by a grant from the Lumpkin Family Foundation.
Read the top takeaways from this investigation.
Pesticide exposure can cause long-lasting health problems. Illinois' system to monitor exposure is flawed, experts said.
The farmworkers flocked to the two emergency rooms in Urbana, Illinois, the night of Aug. 5, 2019, their kids in tow. Numbering about 20, their skin had rashes, their eyes were red and they were vomiting. Though at two different hospitals, doctors arrived at the same conclusion: “chemical exposure.”
The doctors had a litany of instructions, according to discharge paperwork obtained by Investigate Midwest via a public records request. If your four-month-old is having trouble breathing, return to the emergency room right away, one doctor told a young mother. Return in a week so we can check on your four-year-old, another said. “Your clothing is still contaminated,” yet another doctor wrote. “You need to wash the clothing carefully.”
Hours earlier, a yellow plane flew over the corn field the workers were in and sprayed them with pesticides, according to allegations made in legal and state records. It flew so low that some clocked its tail numbers. But at the worksite, they said later, their employer had not provided facilities so they could wash the chemicals off — a federal violation. When some picked up their kids later, they hadn't been able to decontaminate.
It was the second time in two weeks the workers said they'd been sprayed.
Federal and state authorities would investigate the incidents, but how they came to their attention highlights flaws in Illinois’ monitoring of human exposure to pesticides — and shortcomings once authorities are involved. If not for an enterprising local health director, the incident likely would have escaped scrutiny.
Illinois’ regulations governing human pesticide exposure don’t do enough to protect people, said Dave Koehler, a Democratic state senator from Peoria and vice chair of the state senate’s agriculture committee.
“It is a public health issue,” he said. “We don’t have adequate controls in that area.”
After months of reviewing Illinois’ system for monitoring human exposure to pesticides, Investigate Midwest found:
- Despite tens of millions of pounds of pesticides sprayed in the state each year, Illinois does not require doctors — likely the first point of contact after a spraying — to report possible exposure cases. Other states with vast quantities of pesticides applied to vast fields of farmland, such as Iowa, do.
- The Illinois Department of Agriculture has consistently levied little to no fines for human exposure to pesticides in recent years because of the state’s point system for assessing penalties. Pesticide applicators are assigned points for different violations; the more points, the greater the fine.
- Regardless of how many people were harmed, state law limits how many points an applicator can be assessed. Spraying a human is worth the same number of points as spraying without a permit or falsifying records.
- Farmworkers are particularly at-risk of pesticide exposure, but the agriculture department has only investigated one other incident involving exposed farmworkers since 2019. The agency proved the applicator violated a federal law, the Worker Protection Standard, but, under the point system, it could only issue a warning.
The pesticide applicators in each incident were fined $750. That’s the largest amount in any case involving human exposure since 2019, the year the agriculture department began tracking human exposure cases. Theoretically, the agency could fine applicators up to $10,000. But, over the past decade, the largest penalties tallied $2,500, for dicamba drift incidents in 2019 and 2020, the agency said.
In several statements to Investigate Midwest about the 2019 incident and general questions about its responsibilities overseeing allegations of pesticide misuse, the state agriculture department said its job is “limited.”
“The Department’s utmost concern is always the health and safety of anyone who is potentially affected” by pesticide exposure, its statement reads. “The Department's role in pesticide misuse incidents is limited to determining whether a violation of the Pesticide Act has occurred and taking enforcement action when such a violation is found.”
The 2019 sprayings were “absolutely unacceptable,” said state Rep. Dagmara Avelar, who sponsored a bill in the Illinois House of Representatives to increase the minimum fine for human pesticide exposure. Human exposure would result in a $2,500 fine, plus $1,000 for each person affected.
“What we want to make sure that we do is that we are increasing those penalties,” she said, “so that we don’t have incidents like this again.”
The bill, which was also before the state Senate, failed to pass this year.
The crew worked for Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of Corteva Agriscience, a seed company that hauled in $15 billion in revenue last year. Corteva denied in legal filings the workers were sprayed. It also said workers had access to equipment to wash themselves, which is a federal requirement.
Corteva “thoroughly” investigated the claims of chemical exposure, the company told Investigate Midwest, and "confirmed that neither Corteva nor Pioneer is responsible for any alleged pesticide misapplication and that neither company is legally responsible for the personal injuries allegedly resulting from the pesticide misapplications.”
When asked about the discharge paperwork showing doctors concluded the workers were exposed to chemicals and still had chemicals on their clothing at the hospitals, Corteva reiterated its statement, saying it was not “legally responsible” for any injuries related to pesticides.
Two weeks after the incident, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the workers' allegations of federal violations. The agency ultimately did not fine Corteva. The inspector noted, based on interviews with the company and workers, water and cleaning agents were available in the field. But, in a letter to Corteva, OSHA said workers were potentially exposed to pesticides and asked the company to voluntarily take steps to ensure protection from exposure.
The labor contractor that Pioneer hired to recruit farmworkers to Central Illinois in 2019, Fidencio Salinas, also said the workers were not sprayed in a brief interview.
“They took everyone who felt bad to the hospital, everyone who wanted to go,” he said in Spanish. “They didn't have anything on their bodies or their clothes. They didn't have any kind of poison or insecticides or anything.”
He’d worked for Pioneer for decades, he said, but the company “didn’t need my services” anymore after the 2019 incidents. When asked if the workers exhibited any symptoms of pesticide exposure, he hung up.
The two pesticide applicators, RAS Aviation and Curless Flying Service, contested their state fines, and administrative rulings have been delayed for more than a year because of a lawsuit filed by 32 workers involved in the two sprayings, according to documents filed in the proceedings.
RAS Aviation and Curless did not respond to requests for comment. When asked why it fined them the minimum amount, the agriculture department said it couldn’t comment on ongoing administrative hearings and referenced its point system.
The 2019 case should renew focus on how local, state and federal authorities address pesticide exposure, especially of migrant farmworkers, said Lisa Palumbo, the director of Legal Aid Chicago’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group. Palumbo is part of the team of lawyers from Legal Aid Chicago, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, the Environmental Law & Policy Center and Farmworker Justice who are representing the workers.
“As the essential workers most impacted by exposures, their safety should be paramount,” she said. “Yet, they have little access to the agencies charged with keeping them safe.”
State law divides responsibility for regulating pesticides to four agencies, but the primary one in charge of investigating pesticide misuse is the state's agriculture department.
To Linda Forst, an occupational and environmental health professor at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health who helped study Illinois’ approach to preventing pesticide poisoning for a 2018 report, it’s strange to have an agency with no expertise in human health be the first point of contact when humans are sprayed.
“The first call should be to a health agency,” she said.
The night the farmworkers visited the ERs in Urbana, the doctors apparently thought the same. Physicians contacted the Illinois Poison Center, a non-governmental organization that runs a hotline for advice on chemical exposure, and Julie Pryde, the director of the area's local health department.
(The hospitals the doctors work for declined to comment. The poison center said all calls to its hotline are confidential. Also, it said, the center generally leaves it to the doctors administrating care to report incidents to authorities, as the center is "merely facilitating care/providing expert advice.")
Pryde said she’s never received state guidance on what to do after spraying incidents like the ones in 2019. Once she heard about it, she reported it to the Illinois Department of Public Health, but officials there told her she needed to contact the agriculture department, according to emails Investigate Midwest obtained via a public records request. She filled out the complaint form herself.
The public health department said it takes reports of pesticide exposure to humans “very seriously.” When asked about referring Pryde to the agricultural departmennt, the public health department said, “we advised the local public health authority to contact the Department of Agriculture, so the reported incident could be investigated by the appropriate Department.”
In the 2018 report, Forst and her co-authors recommended Illinois require doctors report suspected exposure cases. But, she said, state agencies need to communicate better when incidents like the sprayings happen. Authorities across agencies should determine where the process failed and develop policies to prevent incidents like this one, she said.
“It's like the National Transportation Safety Board, when they find a problem with a Boeing airplane,” she said. “They go in, they look at all the airplanes and see whether the problems happened before and in the same way. Then they figure out a solution that is broad so that it doesn't happen again.”
To Pryde, the response to her report didn’t seem like effective oversight.
“It was a big mess that should have been a rapid response,” she said.
DATABASE: The Illinois Department of Agriculture started recording investigations related to human pesticide exposure in 2019. Below you can search through the 33 investigations it's done since then. Click on the green plus sign to find links to the complete investigative files.
The 2019 incident in Illinois started at the tip of South Texas.
Each year, Pioneer, which has an office just east of Urbana, hires labor contractors to recruit migrant farmworkers. The farmworkers are at the labor-intensive, low-paying end of an industry that pulls in billions annually. They detassel the tops of corn, which prevents Corteva’s proprietary breeds from cross-pollinating. The process, which can only be done by hand, allows Corteva to develop seeds that can produce higher yields for farmers.
But pesticides pose such a problem that farmworkers are encouraged to wear long sleeves and pants in the heat of summer to prevent exposure. A 2011 federal study found agricultural workers suffered pesticide-related illnesses at a rate 37 times that of non-agricultural workers.
In Texas, many farmworkers live in the Rio Grande Valley’s colonias, unincorporated communities with little-to-no public services, such as potable water and street lights. Salinas, the labor contractor, lives in the Valley, and, in early summer 2019, he began his recruitment.
In all, about a hundred people, including teenagers, signed up to detassel corn in the counties surrounding Champaign. Pioneer offered $9.25 an hour, but it wouldn’t guarantee a full day’s work, according to a “worker disclosure” form.
The first week of July 2019, the crew traveled north. The families settled into hotels in the area, and, for the infants, Pioneer provided day care while their parents were in the fields, according to the workers’ lawsuit. (In a responding legal filing, Corteva denied it provided day care.) Corteva also provided a bus to the worksite.
A couple weeks into the job, on July 23, a helicopter zoomed overhead. The bus driver honked the horn repeatedly, a sign to leave the field. The crew, clad in neon orange hats and backpacks, fled. Many felt a mist on their face, and, almost immediately, some experienced irritated skin and had trouble breathing, according to the lawsuit.
Federal law requires agricultural employers to provide facilities at the worksite where pesticides can be washed off. The field had sinks for hand washing, but there was often no soap or water, according to the lawsuit. After the spraying, workers later alleged, Pioneer managers ordered workers to get back on the bus.
In a motion to dismiss filed in response to the workers’ lawsuit, RAS Aviation, the owner of the helicopter, denied the workers were sprayed. A manager personally saw the incident that day, and, while the helicopter flew over the workers, it never released pesticides, according to the manager’s affidavit filed in support of RAS Aviation's motion to dismiss.
In its lawsuit response, Corteva denied the workers were sprayed. It also denied there were no facilities available to wash off chemicals.
Shortly after the incident, a Corteva manager submitted a complaint about RAS Aviation to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, according to paperwork obtained by Investigate Midwest. In late 2020, the state informed Corteva that its investigation concluded that RAS Aviation had, in fact, violated the Illinois Pesticide Act by spraying pesticides that hit workers that day.
When asked about submitting the complaint, Corteva said it was not responsible for any workers’ alleged injuries.
When the workers returned to their hotel rooms that day in July 2019, some had to wait to use the shower. The inability to wash themselves would have consequences for them and their family members, according to the lawsuit — some children developed rashes and diarrhea.
Some workers’ symptoms were so debilitating they couldn’t return to work, and some pushed through the pain, according to the lawsuit. But many returned to the fields, where, two weeks later, they claimed, they were sprayed again.
The workers panicked.
A yellow plane had just flown over the field, and, as the bus’s horn blared, they ran from the field again. Feeling a mist on their skin again, some used drinking water to rinse their faces and necks. Others used a hose with “light pressure,” according to the lawsuit, to wash off. To aid their efforts, Salinas’s wife drove away and returned with dish soap.
About 15 minutes later, Pioneer managers ordered the workers back into the field. Workers later claimed they could still smell the pesticides, but they were told it was safe to return, according to the lawsuit.
Within minutes, the workers later alleged, the plane flew overhead again.
In the confusion, some ran to the side of the field away from the bus. But now the field stood between them and the bus, so Pioneer managers told Salinas to have them run through the field again, according to the lawsuit. One teenaged worker was so sick two others helped him off the field.
Corteva and Pioneer, in their legal response, denied that workers were sprayed, that Salinas was told to order the workers to go back through the field to board the bus and that workers couldn’t wash off effectively.
The workers had been sprayed with Avaris 2XS, a fungicide intended to protect crops from pests, the state’s investigation would later confirm. The workers' symptoms were consistent with the symptoms listed on the label. The label instructs exposed people to immediately remove any contaminated clothing and rinse off for 15-20 minutes. It also restricts entry to a sprayed area for the next 12 hours.
After agricultural workers are exposed to pesticides, federal law requires employers to provide “prompt” transportation to an “appropriate” medical facility. Neither word is defined in the law.
According to the lawsuit, in the aftermath of the spraying, Pioneer managers and Salinas did not treat the workers’ injuries seriously. Corteva denied this.
On the bus, the young man who needed help off the field was gagging. His eyes were red. His mother asked if the bus could head to the hospital, but the lawsuit claimed Salinas said Pioneer would have medical staff available at the hotels. (Salinas hung up before a reporter could ask about this allegation.)
By the time they arrived at the hotel, the teenager was vomiting. His mother thought he was dying, according to the lawsuit. There was no medical staff at the hotels so a family member called an ambulance.
Others drove themselves to OSF Heart of Mary Medical Center and Carle Foundation Hospital. One of these families had not been able to wash off before picking up their children from day care, exposing their four-month-old to pesticides.
That night, two Pioneer managers visited the hospitals.
They insisted to hospital staff that the workers had not been sprayed with pesticides, according to the lawsuit and a complaint 25 workers made to a state-employed worker advocate two days after the incident. On a tablet, the Pioneer managers showed hospital staff a flight plan showing that the plane had sprayed a different field — not the one the workers had been in.
One manager, Branden Gillen, in charge of field operations the day of the incident, didn’t return requests for comment. The other, Dylan Haun, a safety supervisor who has since left the company, declined to comment when reached by phone. Neither are defendants in the lawsuit.
Both OSF and Carle said they would not comment on the 2019 incident due to privacy concerns.
The same night, after 8 p.m., OSF’s emergency room staff called Pryde, the local health director. Known locally as a farmworker advocate, Pryde started trying to figure out who to report the incident to. She’d never seen any educational material or received any training on what to do in an event like this, she said.
The next morning, she emailed the chief medical officer for the state's public health department. “We know that 9 were taken to OSF, and at least 8 were taken to Carle,” she wrote. At least five workers were vomiting, she said.
About an hour later, the head of the health department’s toxicology division told Pryde she needed to contact the agricultural department. In his email, he linked to the form to submit a complaint. It needed to be printed out and either mailed or faxed in.
But the link to the form didn’t work. (The agricultural department said it had no knowledge of the link not working.) Pryde also called and left a message at the department.
In the meantime, Pryde had contacted the Illinois Migrant Council, a nonprofit that helps migrant workers with access to health care. The agricultural department's investigation would likely drag on, Pryde said later, but her concerns were immediate: She wanted to know if the workers were being taken care of.
After her morning of trying to figure out who to contact, Pryde spoke on the phone with an agricultural department official around noon. The official asked what kind of pesticides they’d been sprayed with and if any worker had bagged up their clothes as evidence.
The official then emailed her the form to submit a complaint.
After her phone call, the public health department's toxicologist asked Pryde about the process. “We haven’t had another report like this,” he said, “so was wondering how it went with Ag and what they say they will do.”
Forst, the pesticide researcher, learned about the incident in late August 2019. In March 2020, she organized a meeting with representatives from the state's agricultural department, the state's public health department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA staff in Illinois to discuss the state’s approach to monitoring pesticide exposure. Pryde also attended.
Everyone agreed there was a need for more efficient and effective communication, Forst said.
Then COVID-19 shut down parts of society, and the meetings ceased. (Forst said the meetings to discuss the issue will start again this summer.)
In October 2020, the state agriculture department wrapped up its investigation into RAS Aviation and Curless. By then, the workers had returned to Texas and another summer had passed. Months later, they filed their lawsuit against Corteva and the pesticide applicators.
Most of the state's human exposure investigations have taken four to five months to complete, according to Investigate Midwest's review of state records. But these stretched on for more than a year.
Within 24 hours of Pryde reporting the incident, state agricultural officials informed the U.S. EPA of it, as required by law. However, the federal agency didn't do any follow-up, an agency spokesman said, instead relying on the state agriculture department.
In February of this year, the administrative law judge hearing the applicators’ cases contesting their fines ordered a continuance. The next status hearings are scheduled for Aug. 10.
In 2019, as Forst emailed colleagues at the EPA about setting up the meeting, she summed up the situation: “This is a great opportunity (ugh) to point out how a fragmented system allows individuals to get poisoned over and over without any brakes.”
Johnathan Hettinger contributed reporting to this story.
Top image: A helicopter sprays a field in Champaign County on July 14, 2010. photo by Heather Coit, The News-Gazette