LIHUE — Several groups are calling for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to investigate the recent incident that sent several Syngenta employees on Kauai to the hospital.
“Time and again, Hawaii authorities have turned their back on Hawaii’s residents and farmworkers in favor of agrochemical companies,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff. “We have no confidence that an investigation by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture will get to the bottom of this incident, or take measures to ensure these poisonings stop.”
On Jan. 20, Syngenta reported that employees entered a field at its Kekeha site too soon after it had been sprayed with chlorpyrifos. They were taken to Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital. Seven employees were released from the hospital later that day, and three stayed overnight. All employees returned to work the following week, Syngenta said.
Earthjustice, Farmworker Justice, Pesticide Action Network, Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, Hawaii SEED, Farmworker Association of Florida, and The MOM Hui are asking EPA to step in and ensure a thorough investigation is performed and the results made public.
In a press release, they said Syngenta hasn’t provided sufficient information about the incident, such as what kind of treatment the affected employees received, whether Syngenta had directed them to enter the field, and whether warning signs had been posted.
“We expect the EPA to get involved immediately and ensure the facts are found and made public, and appropriate enforcement action is taken,” Achitoff said in a press release.
Scott Enright, chairperson for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, said their investigation was completed and sent to the EPA for review two weeks ago.
“We expedited it,” he said.
He expects the EPA to respond next week.
The investigation found there was a reentry into a field sprayed with pesticide four hours early, which is a violation.
While workers went to the hospital as a result, they all returned to work and no one was found to have physical harm, he said.
In response to Earthjustice’s call for EPA to handle the investigation, Enright said DOA’s investigation was complete, detailed and prompt.
“We did an excellent job, in my estimation,” he said.
He noted that Ann Kam, DOA enforcement inspector, was at Syngenta for another reason when the incident occurred.
“We had eyes there,” Enright said. “We do have presence there.”
Joshua Uyehara, Syngenta station manager, said Syngenta is working with the regulatory authorities as they review the matter.
“We have responded to numerous media questions with lengthy telephone interviews, and participated in a one-hour live radio show on KKCR,” he said in a written statement. “We have offered several media personnel a tour of the site, as well as offered members of the public who were interested in visiting the site or talking to us to contact us directly.”
“As far as providing more information on the individual workers involved, the hospital notified us that they could return to work; however, any further information has not been released to us due to HIPAA privacy protections,” Uyehara said.
Following the incident, Syngenta officials met to review procedures and policies. An immediate change was to insure that field re-entry procedures are a standing agenda item on the daily safety briefing.
Earthjustice described chlorpyrifos as a “potent neurotoxin,” and said “Extensive scientific evidence ties the pesticide to nervous system damage and persistent developmental disorders, as well as autoimmune conditions, lung cancer, colorectal cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
Uyehara said chlorpyrifos is safe to use as directed on its label, and Syngenta doesn’t plan to stop using it.
“This unfortunate incident underscores the urgent need for stronger protections for farmworkers, who are at greatest risk of harm from daily direct exposure to pesticides,” said Virginia Ruiz, director of Occupational and Environmental Health at Farmworker Justice. “The EPA must conduct a thorough investigation to determine why these workers did not receive adequate notification or protective equipment to prevent their exposure to a neurotoxic pesticide, and whether the subsequent medical treatment was sufficient to address the harm to their health.”
Dean Higuchi, Environmental Protection Agency spokesman in Hawaii, said the Hawaii Department of Agriculture handled the investigation and forwarded its findings to the EPA.
“They keep us informed,” he said Thursday.
He said EPA helps fund the Department of Agriculture program for pesticide enforcement and investigations.
“So they are our partners,” he said.