The Tampa Tribune
by Yvette C. Hammett
DOVER — Ronnie Young spent hours over the past couple of weeks knocking on neighbors’ doors. He was not making social calls.
Young, a farmer in east Hillsborough County, was alerting neighbors that he was about to apply fumigant to a portion of the 400 acres he and his son plant strawberries on each year.
One neighbor, he said, likes to keep her back door open. As a courtesy, he let her know before the tractors rolled last week that it was time to shut the door.
For decades, berry farmers have used chemicals to rid their crops of insects, weeds and other pests that would otherwise limit their harvests. And their neighbors, many of whom have lived in this rural area east of Valrico for decades, have simply considered it part of the country-living experience.
During the past few years, though, some have spoken out, saying fumigants — one called Paladin, in particular — have made them sick. They want Paladin banned. They’ve complained of headaches, sore throats, respiratory infections and lung issues.
And they say these health complaints were never an issue until farmers started using dimethyl disulfide, or Paladin.
Many residents in the community just east of Hillsborough County’s sprawling subdivisions complained to the state health department last year about ill effects from the fumigant, and six have complained so far this year.
They try to stay inside their homes for much of the fumigation season, which extends over a couple of weeks. Some wear masks when they walk their dogs or tend their gardens.
Berry farmers say they have made strides in trying to address their neighbors’ issues.
Young says he plans to use Paladin for at least three more years to determine if it works best on his fields, but he hopes to limit any impacts it might have outside his farm’s borders.
“It’s been fairly quiet” as far as complaints this year, he said. “I’ve had numerous people tell me they’ve had no issues this year. I try not to be confrontational with my neighbors.”
But the fumigation season has only started, and complaints of any ill effects, if there are more to come, may not be lodged for days or weeks.
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Mary Zentkovich lives across the street from one of Ronnie Young’s fields in Dover. Last year, she led the charge against the use of Paladin, saying it had made her so sick that at times she couldn’t get out of bed. Dozens in the Dover community also came forward — many with pre-existing conditions — to say they, too, had been sickened after farmers used Paladin on their fields.
After a town meeting on the issue last fall, the Florida Department of Health investigated, determining that 44 of 66 cases were likely the result of mild pesticide poisoning. But with lack of specific documentation from physicians, it could not say, conclusively, that Paladin was the culprit.
In the past couple of weeks, the state health department issued a health advisory to local physicians outlining the situation, naming symptoms and toxicity related to Paladin and noting that there is no laboratory test available to determine its levels in humans. It suggested contacting a poison control office if symptoms are detected. The health department has also prepared an online video for physicians on recognizing and managing pesticide poisoning.
Shirley Kitchens, who lives on Forbes Road, said she believes she is again feeling the effects of fumigation. Her doctor, who told her he had not received the health advisory from the state, recommended she call the health department and wear a mask while she’s outside.
“He told me I was the second person to tell him they had similar symptoms this year. I’ve lived on this piece of property since 1959, since before there were strawberry fields. I had no problem whatsoever with anything they were putting out until 2013, when they started using the Paladin,” Kitchens said.
In 2013, she was hospitalized with respiratory problems, and last year, she said, she also experienced respiratory issues. This week, she decided to go stay with one of her daughters until the fumigation season has passed. The field behind her house had yet to be fumigated last week.
Zentkovich, who has lived in Dover for 25 years, is continuing to battle against the use of Paladin, forming the Dover Community Action Group with others who believe they are suffering. They’ve started a website — www.Sulfurodorsmell.weebly.com — to post research they’ve done on Paladin and other fumigants. They’ve also started a petition they hope will lead to the end of Paladin’s use here.
“I’m not suing the chemical company. I’m not suing the farmer,” she said. “I just want the product off the market.”
Zentkovich said, like Kitchens, she never suffered any adverse effects from chemicals in the strawberry fields until farmers began using Paladin in 2013.
When the fumigation season began this year, Zentkovich said her son went to stay with a friend and suggested she do the same to avoid getting ill. She is now visiting her parents in Pennsylvania and doesn’t plan to return home for another week or so, she said.
Zentkovich said the community group plans to distribute fliers to about 1,500 houses starting this week, warning residents that if they believe they are experiencing adverse effects from chemicals in the fields, they should see their doctor, then notify the Florida Department of Health’s Tampa office and call the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.
Because so many people came forward last year complaining of health issues, state and federal officials should not simply be writing them off, she said.
Of the six people who have called the Hillsborough County health department this year complaining of pesticide poisoning, two have been interviewed, spokesman Steve Huard said. The department is working to set up interviews with two other residents, and the other two were referred to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The department’s reports will be forwarded to state epidemiologists.
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About 10 percent of the county’s approximately 100 strawberry farms are expected to use Paladin again this year, the third year it has been used in this area — known as the winter strawberry capital of the nation.
The fumigant is injected into the fields, which then sit vacant for at least 21 days before plastic on the planting beds is perforated and the tiny strawberry plants are bedded.
The rest of the region’s strawberry farms are using other fumigants from a list of seven approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for crops.
About 11,000 acres are in production this year for an industry with a $1 billion economic impact in Hillsborough County.
Since the EPA banned the use of methyl bromide, a powerful fumigant that mostly wiped out any pest that threatened strawberry plants, farmers have been seeking a viable alternative. Paladin is marketed as “the better methyl bromide replacement.”
During its second year of use, farmers were ordered by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs to switch to a thicker, impermeable plastic sheeting to cover the raised planting beds, to ensure that very little Paladin escapes. The liquid is injected into the raised beds, then quickly turns into a gas that permeates the soil.
The smell, a pungent garlicky odor, was only slightly detectable in a field off Forbes Road last week, when Young and his son, Adam, fumigated a portion of their property with Paladin mixed with a small percentage of the fumigant chloropicrin.
The Youngs are using less of the fumigants this year thanks to a GPS system Adam Young helped develop with tractor maker John Deer. The computer system cuts the fumigant sprayers off when the tractor passes across farm roads or comes near the end of a row. That means less Paladin exposure for farmworkers and neighbors.
This year, as they did last year, the Youngs are using Paladin on a portion of their crop and using other fumigants, including one called K-Pam HL, on others.
“Some of that is in consideration of my neighbors,” but it is also about what is good for his business, Ronnie Young said, standing in the buffer zone while his son sprayed the beds. Representatives from Arkema, Paladin’s manufacturer, stood nearby taking electronic readings of the fumigant in the air.
He said he’ll compare Paladin to the other fumigants to determine which is the best answer to the loss of methyl bromide, which the EPA outlawed after determining that it emits greenhouse gases that eat away at the Earth’s ozone layer.
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Using chemicals on Florida’s strawberry fields is pretty much a necessity, said Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.
Even as a movement grows across the nation for more organic produce and fewer chemicals in food, it is not the kind of practice that can be implemented on large-scale operations in the Sunshine State, Parker said.
“Florida is probably the worse case scenario on a commercial scale,” Parker said. “We do have a small percentage of organic production in Florida, but because of the humid, subtropical environment, every pest is multiplied here. Folks are not willing to pay what it is worth to make (organic farming) profitable.”
Young added: “Without chemical products, our crops would go down by half and the cost for strawberries at Publix would double. And all the berries would then come from Mexico” because nobody would be willing to pay those high prices.
“The concept of going all organic is a very romantic one, but it’s not realistic,” Young said.
He doesn’t believe the products he is using are harming anyone’s health. He said the complaints more likely stem from the rancid smell.
The closest row of strawberries to Young’s house in Dover is 102 feet from his back door, and it has been fumigated with Paladin. His three grandchildren are at his house three or four times a week and play nearby, he said. Not once has anyone in his family or in his employ complained of illness, he said.
Some neighbors say they’ve heard that field workers have become ill from Paladin but were afraid to report it for fear of losing their jobs.
“We ask them,” Young said. “We tell them, ‘If you’re sick, you need to let us know so you can get the proper treatment.’ ” No one has come forward, he said.
“If you go into a community during fumigation, you’re going to find somebody sick,” Young said.
Whether that illness is related to Paladin is a question the state has been unable to answer.
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