Pesticide Regulation Long Overdue Austin IN AUGUST 1982, Sacharias Ruiz, a migrant worker who traveled to the U.S. for the first time because of a drought in his native San Luis Potosi, Mexico, died of pesticide poisoning after spraying dinitro-3, a highly toxic herbicide, on cotton plants near Bryan. Because he was unable to read or speak English, it is doubtful that Ruiz knew how poisonous this herbicide, which accidentally leaked from his canister, could be. Investigation of the circumstances surrounding his death reveals that neither the state nor the federal government ensures farmworkers’ access to the information and training that might have prevented this accident. Unlike California, the largest consumer of agricultural chemicals in the nation, Texas, the second largest, keeps no record of pesticide-related poisonings. This dramatic incident, however, has renewed the call for stricter pesticide regulation in Texas. Ruiz, who had been in the U.S. for five months, was a “ground sprayer” on W. P. Scamardo’s large ranch. According to an interview that state agricultural department officials con ducted \(in the presence of Scamardo and undocumented workers who lived and worked with Ruiz, he stopped spraying some time on the morning of August 5, complaining of fatigue, and disap peared until quitting time, 6 p.m. that evening. Ruiz told Ritchie that he had gone to lie in the trees because he had been feeling sick. Ritchie gave Ruiz two aspirin and offered to take Ruiz and his fellow workers home. He said that he told Ruiz to clean up and not worry about returning to work the next day if he did not feel better. Ritchie told the other men to call him if Ruiz’ condition got worse. Several hours later the men telephone Ritchie from a neighbor’s house; they Leslie Whitaker is a frequent Observer contributor. By Leslie Whitaker said Ruiz was very sick. Ritchie drove Ruiz to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bryan. By the time he was admitted to the emergency room, Ruiz had collapsed; he was incoherent and unable to walk. The attending physician, Dr. Sam Roberts, called the ranch and had the canister label read to him over the phone, though he felt sure that Ruiz was suffering from herbicidal poisoning. This was the first case Roberts had seen, but he remembered the symptoms from medical school. “His fever went right off the scale, and we administered an aspirin suppository. Three minutes later he stopped breathing and we attempted standard revival methods,” Roberts told the Observer. Fifteen minutes later Ruiz was dead. The autopsy report concluded that death was caused by dinitro-3 poisoning. At the time of death, Ruiz’s hands and feet were stained yellow, a sign that this toxic chemical had entered his body at a dangerously high level. Despite Environmental Protection Agency warnings about dinitro-3 and related compounds in the EPA manual, ‘Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisonings, \(“DO NOT administer . . . aspirin .. . to control fever. Animal tests indicate that aspirin enhances, rather than re which is not on the label was not readily available to the foreman or the physician. Did aspirin accelerate the herbicide’s poisonous effects? Roberts maintains that the aspirin he administered is unrelated to Ruiz’s death, which occurred before the aspirin had time to take effect. “If I got another one [herbicidal poisoning] today, I wouldn’t anticipate much more success,” says Roberts. “Herbicides work so quickly, they are almost untreatable.” Roberts was not aware that Ritchie had given Ruiz aspirin earlier that day, however, and does not dismiss the possibility that it enhanced dinitro-3’s toxicity. Speculation is complicated further by “sketchy reports that a canister blew up in his [Ruiz’s] face the day before,” according to Roberts. The physician doubts that this accident, if it occurred, had much effect, however, because herbicidal poisoning generally occurs within a matter of hours. Ruiz, age 39, left a wife, Teresa, and three children residing on a communal farm in San Luis Potosi. The widow has filed a $1.5 million civil suit against Scamardo and Platte Chemical Company of Freemont, Nebraska, charging negligence. Her lawyer, Russell Budd of Frederick Baron & Associateg in Dallas, feels that the plaintiff’s case is strong. “There’s causation beyond a doubt, based on the autopsy findings. And the liability is clear-cut the labeling is inadequate.” Budd explains that charging negligence requires proving that the defendants either knew or should have known the hazardous nature of the chemical and should have taken proper precautions to protect Ruiz. John Donley, the attorney for United Agri Products \(the parent company of his firm’s innocence. “We’re not too worried,” he told the Observer from company headquarters in Greeley, Colorado. “We’re not the manufacturer, and we don’t really sell dinitro-3,” he said. Donley explained that Platte Chemical receives dinitro-3 from three manufacturers, then mixes it and supplies it to distributors throughout the country. “You’ll find that it’s not even our label [on the product],” he says, explaining that Platte’s address is stamped on the label provided by the manufacturers. Scamardo failed to return numerous calls to ‘his office requesting an interview about the case. The Chemical and Its Regulation Dinitro-3 is a three-pound-per-gallon mixture of dinoseb, a chemical that has been registered for use as an herbicide with the federal government for more than thirty years. It is a common herbicide used on cotton, gladiolas, THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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