A Poisoned Field: Farmworkers, Pesticide Exposure, and Tort Recovery in an Era of Regulatory Failure


As members of the “best-fed nation on Earth, Americans have come to expect an abundance of food at low prices. Although consumers are increasingly concerned about the effects pesticides have on their health, the public has yet to show a comparable interest in the pesticide-related dangers farmworkers face in the fields every day. A disturbing trend of societal neglect continues to ensure that the plight of the nation’s migrant and seasonal agricultural workers remains out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Yet any glance at farmworkers harvesting rows of strawberries or fields of lettuce reveals that agricultural workers are among the “poorest and most widely exploited work force[s] in the country.” As they endure substandard living accommodations and perform difficult work in exchange for low wages, farmworkers also must cope with regular doses of field poisons.

The death of Jose Antonio Casillas is a disquieting example of the workplace hazards pesticides pose to farmworkers. The fifteen-year-old migrant worker was in prime health. At the end of each workday, while other farmworkers sat exhausted, Casillas had the energy to bicycle, lift weights, and play soccer. In 1999, Casillas left his hometown of Guanajuato, Mexico for the orchards of central Utah, intending to make enough money to support his mother and younger siblings back home. But two months after arriving in Utah, Casillas’s journey ended abruptly. On June 26, 1999, an applicator-tractor doused Casillas with Guthion Solupak, a pesticide similar in formulation to Sarin, the nerve gas used in chemical warfare. This was the second time in a week Casillas had been sprayed with pesticides while working in the fields. Unaware that a highly toxic pesticide covered his body, Casillas thought he had been sprayed only with water. After his first exposure, Casillas experienced intense head pain. After his second exposure, the teenager was vomiting, sweating, and suffering from diarrhea. That night, Casillas slept in the same clothes he had worn during the exposure. While riding his bicycle to work the next morning, Casillas lost consciousness and collapsed. By the time paramedics arrived, Casillas was dead, with white foam streaming from his nose.


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