Over several months, we examined how the state of Illinois monitors for human pesticide exposure. In particular, our reporting focused on how the system handled a situation where a crew of farmworkers said they were sprayed twice in two weeks in central Illinois in summer 2019. They worked for Corteva Agriscience, a major seed-corn company.

Here are the main takeaways from the investigation.

  • The workers alleged in a lawsuit that Corteva did not provide facilities so they could wash the pesticides off. Federal law requires employers to provide these facilities. An OSHA investigation determined these facilities were available, and Corteva denied the workers’ allegations.
  • Children, including infants, were exposed to pesticides during the incidents. The workers alleged, because they could not wash off the pesticides, some exposed their children when they returned from the fields. Hospital paperwork obtained by Investigate Midwest shows doctors determined the workers and their children suffered from “chemical exposure.” Corteva denied the workers’ allegations.
  • Unlike other states with large agricultural economies, Illinois does not require doctors to report possible cases of human pesticide exposure to state authorities. It’s likely the 2019 incidents would have escaped scrutiny if not for a local health director taking it upon herself to report them to the agency that could investigate and assess penalties. The health director said she has received no training from the state about what to do in these situations. 
  • Illinois’ point system for assessing fines for pesticide misuse limits how much pesticide applicators can be penalized for wrongdoing. Different violations result in different amounts of points, and the more total points, the greater the fine. But, more often than not in recent years, the system has resulted in applicators not being fined for exposing humans to pesticides. The system also weighs exposing humans the same as falsifying records.
  • The point system does not take into account how many people were exposed to pesticides. In the 2019 incidents, about 20 people suffered symptoms, but the pesticide applicators were each fined $750. They have yet to pay those fines because the applicators have contested the fines. 

The Illinois Department of Agriculture said it has a “limited” role in overseeing allegations of pesticide exposure. It has no discretion over how much pesticide applicators can be fined and is bound by the point system in state statute, the agency said.

The pesticide applicators did not return requests for comment. One of them denied in a response to the workers’ lawsuit that the workers were sprayed with pesticides.

Top image: The Corteva/Pioneer seed corn processing facility near St. Joseph, Illinois, on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. photo by Darrell Hoemann, Investigate Midwest