Paul Reynolds sprays fungicide in Champaign County, Illinois, on Wednesday, July14, 2010. photo by Heather Coit, The News-Gazette

Legislation that increases the fines for spraying humans with pesticides has passed the Illinois Senate.

First introduced in 2021, this is the first time the legislation passed a statehouse chamber. The push for higher fines came in the wake of two 2019 incidents involving the same crew of farmworkers. On two separate occasions that summer, an airplane and a helicopter sprayed them with pesticides while they detasseled corn, according to a lawsuit and state investigations.

The legislation, which passed the state senate March 30, now moves to the state’s House of Representatives. The higher fines would apply only if an applicator is spraying “off-label” — meaning they’re not spraying exactly as the product label dictates.

Illinois currently uses a point system to assign fines to pesticide violators. More points means a higher fine. Spraying a human — the current law doesn’t take into account how many — is worth the same number of points as spraying without a permit or falsifying records. 

The point system led to $750 fines for the operators of the airplane and helicopter in the 2019 incidents.

The new legislation changes the fines for human exposure:

  • If fewer than three people are exposed, the fine is $500 per person.
  • If between three and five people are exposed, the fine is $750 per person.
  • If five or more people are exposed, the fine is $1,250 per person.

“This legislation aims to hold those who expose others to pesticide responsible and to ensure safe conditions for farmworkers are met,” Sen. Karina Villa, a Democrat who introduced the legislation, said in a statement. “With the passage of this legislation from the Senate, I hope workers no longer need to worry about pesticide exposure.” 

The original version of the bill aimed to make the fine $2,500 for spraying just one human, plus $1,000 for each additional person affected. The original bill also made no distinction between spraying on or off-label.

The Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association, which represents pesticide applicators, opposed the legislation in the past. But they dropped their opposition after the bill sponsors agreed to an amendment, Kevin Johnson, the chemical association’s president, said Friday.

The amendment states the higher fines only apply when applicators spray off-label. If the state determines an applicator sprayed someone but had been following the label, the original fine amounts would still apply.

Recklessly spraying off-label is what should be fined, Johnson said. 

“If you are off-label, that’s not a defendable case,” he said.

In the 2019 incidents, the state determined both applicators had sprayed off-label. The labels for the pesticides directed applicators not to spray “in a way that will contact workers,” according to state investigative documents.

The Illinois Farm Bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. State records show the farm bureau registered no opposition to the amendment.

These charts show how Illinois’s current system for assessing fines for violating the pesticide law works.

In the 2019 incidents, the farmworkers’ children were also exposed to pesticides.

In a lawsuit, the farmworkers alleged their employer did not allow them to wash the pesticides off before returning to their motel, where their children were. The employer, Corteva, one of the country’s largest seed producers, has denied this.

After the second spraying incident, several of the workers visited a hospital in Urbana. There, according to doctors’ notes Investigate Midwest uncovered, doctors diagnosed the workers and their children, including a 4-month-old, with pesticide exposure.

The workers’ lawsuit is ongoing.

Type of work:

News Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

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Sky Chadde, Investigate MidwestAssistant Editor/Senior Reporter

Sky Chadde has covered the agriculture industry for Investigate Midwest since 2019 and spent much of 2020 focused on the crisis of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants, which included collecting and analyzing...

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