Buzz Kill

Crop dusters spray pesticides on homes, animals and people while the Arizona Department of Agriculture does little to stop them

Chris Carranza and Robert Moseley are in the same crowd. Carranza, who has been found at fault in more than half of 15 complaints, has never been fined more than $117. And the highest penalty ever paid by Moseley, whose history is packed with 11 violations from 26 complaints, was $267.

In many cases it is difficult to pinpoint the number of violations a pilot has accumulated because the agency keeps such bad records. Paper records are destroyed after five years, and about a year ago, the department began deleting computer records more than five years old.

Even records for the last five years, which are used to determine a pilot's prior violations, are incomplete, which means there may be more repeat offenders than records reflect. Some pilots with complaints against them have no case histories in the department's database, and several pilots have case histories that are missing complaints.

Certain pesticides can instantly kill fish in irrigation canals similar to the one in which pilot John Pew is standing.
Erik Guzowski
Certain pesticides can instantly kill fish in irrigation canals similar to the one in which pilot John Pew is standing.
After the chemicals are loaded by Ted Freeman (right), pilot Dwight Willis prepares for takeoff to do a morning application in Queen Creek.
Erik Guzowski
After the chemicals are loaded by Ted Freeman (right), pilot Dwight Willis prepares for takeoff to do a morning application in Queen Creek.

Records on crop-dusting companies are just as weak, often showing only a fraction of the complaints and violations involving their pilots. Of the more than 17 companies that have sent pilots out to spray crops in the last decade, about half accounted for the bulk of unsafe sprays. These businesses faced no penalty for their pilots' offenses.

The problem with recordkeeping is that the system has changed through the years, and workers have entered data differently, says Jill Davis, a department spokeswoman. "It isn't a perfect system, so it would be difficult to have an exact number of what someone's done."

Yet a pilot's history is supposed to figure into his fines, so when records are incomplete, the department relies primarily on employees' memories to fill in the gaps.

Davis says Jack Peterson, manager of the environmental services division and a seven-year veteran of the department, can usually recall when a case is missing and take it into account. "We feel it's adequate for that purpose," says Davis.

Perhaps worse than the sheer volume of repeated pesticide violations is the harm the pilots' negligence could have caused. In case after case, pilots are fined a small amount for what could have turned into a disaster. So far, the department says, it has been lucky, at least in avoiding cases where damage to humans or the environment could be proved.

Don't tell that to Carl Hegi's family. They believe pesticide spray killed their father.

A longtime dairy farmer, Carl Hegi worked at a time when new chemicals to control pests were a godsend, and environmental and health concerns had not yet boiled to the surface. John Hegi, Carl's son, recalled days on the family farm in Buckeye, where he and his brothers would play with the pesticides, spraying them on the barn.

"He grew up in an era when that was the future," says John Hegi, a groundskeeper for the University of California at Santa Cruz. "He would have been the last person to say anything bad about the concept."

Retired and 74, Hegi was riding his bicycle to his brother's farm in August 1990 when he was caught in a crop duster's spray. Hegi arrived drenched in methyl parathion, a highly toxic chemical commonly used to kill insects on cotton. High-dose exposure to the compound, which is similar to nerve gas, for even a short time can cause loss of consciousness, difficulty breathing, blurred vision and death, according to the federal health department's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Hegi was in his chemical-drenched clothes for at least half an hour. Three weeks later, at John C. Lincoln Hospital North Mountain, his lungs and kidneys began to fail and his stomach started bleeding. By October 3, 1990, he was dead.

A toxicologist ruled out pesticide poisoning, saying exposure weeks earlier wouldn't explain Hegi's symptoms, according to the pathology report. Symptoms from that type of pesticide typically appear within hours, even minutes, toxicology experts say, and deaths are usually because of respiratory complications (which Hegi had).

Symptoms of pesticide poisoning often mimic other health problems, making illness or death from pesticides difficult to determine, says Ernest Arvizu, a state epidemiology specialist who evaluates pesticide exposure cases from the agriculture department. Doctors could offer no other explanation for Hegi's death.

"No unifying disease process was found to explain the patient's pulmonary and renal failure," medical records state.

Hegi's family still blames pesticide exposure.

"He had always been healthy, so it was surprising," says John Hegi, who expected his father to live into his 90s, as Carl's brothers did. The family sued the applicator, Pierce Aviation, but no doctors would back up a cause of death because of pesticides, says Ian Neale, the family's attorney.

"The obvious reason was that he had been drenched from head to foot by methyl parathion," says Neale. "We were absolutely stymied by their medical opinion and the autopsy."

John Hegi says the lawsuit was settled for a token amount. Jim Pierce, owner of Pierce Aviation, remembers only that Carl Hegi's daughter contacted him, but he doesn't recall the details or the lawsuit. Pierce's lawyer wouldn't comment.

John Hegi says he's not sure whether his father's death was reported to the Department of Agriculture. Officials say they do not remember the case. "We would have liked to know about this," says Peterson, manager of the environmental services division.

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