CHICAGO – During the afternoon of July 23, 2019, a helicopter sprayed toxic pesticides on migrant farmworkers working in central Illinois’ cornfields, clearly visible in neon orange hats and backpacks.
Two weeks later, many of those same farmworkers were again sprayed with pesticides, this time twice within a half-hour. The farmworkers, employed by Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., included numerous teenagers, workers in their 60s, and a pregnant woman.
Legal Aid Chicago, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center on December 2, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Illinois on behalf of 27 migrant farmworkers, all Texas residents. The suit names Pioneer Hi-Bred, its corporate parent, publicly traded agricultural giant Corteva Inc., and aerial applicator companies.
According to the suit, the farmworkers suffered acute poisoning after both events, including shortness of breath, blurred vision, painful eye and skin irritation, vomiting, headaches, excessive fatigue, and dizziness. Symptoms persisted for months, and some continue to this day. Five children were also exposed to the pesticides by coming in close contact with the farmworkers.
“No farmworker should be exposed to poisonous chemicals when doing their job, let alone multiple times in two weeks,” said Lisa Palumbo, Director of Legal Aid Chicago’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights project. “Migrant farmworkers are some of our most vulnerable workers, who grow and harvest the food we eat. Their employer is obligated to ensure they are safe from pesticide exposure, and that they are properly cared for and provided truthful information if exposure occurs. This did not happen here.”
The lawsuit includes numerous claims against the employer, Pioneer Hi-Bred, including violations of federal laws that protect migrant farmworkers from pesticide exposure, as well as various torts, wage claims, and claims for breach of contract;it also includes claims against the applicators for spraying workers with pesticides when they were clearly visible. The farmworkers seek damages for the harm they suffered and continue to suffer, and for harm to their children.
“These farmworkers suffered painful injuries due to the errant spraying of pesticides without proper protections and in violation of applicable legal standards,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “This lawsuit asks the Court to hold companies responsible for their failures to protect farmworkers from these harmful impacts of dangerous pesticides. In addition, this tragedy highlights the importance of strengthening the protective standards.”
Pioneer Hi-Bred in 2019 brought dozens of migrant workers from Weslaco, Mercedes, and other cities in the Rio Grande Valley to work in Illinois cornfields. Their main job was “detasseling,” or removing the spiky tassel from the tops of plants. After the initial exposure in July 2019, the workers were again detasseling corn on August 5. That is when they saw a crop-dusting airplane flying so low they could make out the pilot’s face and read the plane’s tail number. Many of the workers immediately felt eye, skin, and throat irritation. Some experienced numbness of their face or found it difficult to breathe.
The workers ran out of the field, but 15 minutes later, Pioneer ordered the workers to re-enter the field to continue working. The plane soon returned and sprayed the workers again. Each time, Pioneer failed to provide adequate decontamination areas, medical attention, or transportation to a health center or hospital.
Many of the exposed farmworkers traveled to hospitals independently, but some who were ill did not seek immediate medical attention because they did not have health insurance. The complaint alleges Pioneer said it would not cover the hospital bills despite it carrying legal required workers’ compensation coverage.