Pesticide watchdog called ag lap dog

A 'corrupt' state health department caves to industry, an ex-official says.

By John Lanitgua
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 01, 2005

The former chief watchdog of pesticide use in Florida says the state's health officials abdicated their responsibility to protect workers and the public years ago, largely because of political pressure from the agriculture industry.

Dr. Omar Shafey, who headed the state Department of Health pesticide surveillance program from 1998 to 2000, says his superior told him that he could not "contradict" agriculture officials, even if he thought pesticide use was causing health problems.

Shafey says his superiors also changed one of his reports about illnesses caused by malathion spraying during the medfly infestations of the late 1990s, a report that said victims of pesticide illness should be treated at state expense and compensated. Shafey calls the Florida Health Department "corrupt."

"We're talking about bureaucrats whose first interest is self-preservation, in not causing controversy, and not in public health," Shafey says. "The system of protecting the public is broken."

Shafey was fired in 2000 after his superiors accused him of lying on travel vouchers and claiming to have worked several hours that he didn't. They also accused Shafey of misstating where he was on part of a separate three-day work trip. The Inspector General's Office later ruled that he owed the state $12.50.

The secretary in charge of expense accounts for the health department, Sandy Heatherly, testified during a deposition that she believed the reasons given for Shafey's dismissal in March 2000 were trumped up. She said such "mistakes" on vouchers had never resulted in reprimands, let alone dismissals.

"I was fired because I refused to go along with a coverup," Shafey says. "That's the truth of it. Spraying had caused illnesses, and the state didn't want to say that."

Lindsay Hodges, spokeswoman for the health department, said Friday that the department stood by its original reasons for dismissing Shafey and would have no comment on any of Shafey's contentions about the state's performance.

And, Shafey's immediate superiors at the time in the state epidemiology office, Sharon Heber and Dr. David Johnson, did not respond to specific charges he made. Johnson is still with the department; Heber sells real estate in Dunnellon.

Today, Florida growers continue to use tons of agricultural chemicals on their crops every year; probably more per cultivated acre than in any other state. Environmentalists, farmworker advocates, some politicians, fishermen and tourism officials are questioning the effects of those chemicals and enforcement of federal laws governing their use.

Medflies sparked program

Shafey, who was raised in Miami and now works in cancer prevention in Atlanta, recalled in an interview the hopes he had in February 1998 when he became coordinator of Florida's pesticide program. His position was funded with federal money given to Florida after a 1997 plague of Mediterranean fruit flies.

Also known as medflies, the insects penetrate and infest fruit and vegetables. The state had responded with aerial spraying of the insecticide malathion in and around Hillsborough County, and that had led to thousands of complaints from residents. Shafey was hired to monitor that and other pesticide issues.

"I was proud to get the job," says Shafey, 43. "I knew that pesticides was a big issue in Florida, and the fact that they had the confidence in me to coordinate a federal and state project, that was gratifying."

But the honeymoon was brief. In March 1998, and during the next several months, parts of Florida again became infested with medflies. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services again dispatched planes to spray malathion over infested counties: Lake, Manatee, Highland and Miami-Dade.

Subsequently, the state received 230 complaints of human illness that residents, and in some cases doctors, linked to the spraying. Shafey investigated and found 123 of the cases involved probable or possible pesticide-induced illness.

One case investigated was that of a 4-year-old boy from Umatilla, who had asthma and was hospitalized for two days after his house was sprayed.

"When I went to Umatilla, the kid's doctor yelled at me," Shafey recalls. "He said, 'How could you let this happen?' "

A state toxicologist later ruled that the boy had stood nearby as a state helicopter landed in a field, and the dust may have caused the asthma attack. Shafey discounts that because of the many other complaints received at the time.

"This kind of state toxicologist is more like a tobacco industry toxicologist," Shafey says, "more like a lawyer looking for loopholes."

Says report rejected twice

The other cases he confirmed involved residents who complained of difficulties breathing, rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stool, puffy eyelids and numbness. He said other health officials disputed his findings, saying those conditions occurred every day anyway.

"But you can't spray people with pesticides and then tell them their symptoms would have happened anyway," Shafey says.

In October 1998, Shafey received a commendation from the department for his handling of the crisis. But, in December, according to Shafey, his superiors rejected his report on the crisis.

Shafey says he was told he had to change his recommendation that malathion spraying no longer be allowed because of human illness. He says he adjusted it to say that, if spraying were to be employed, the state should provide medical care when necessary, plus compensation. He says that was rejected, too.

He says his immediate superior, Brian Hughes, chief of the bureau of environmental epidemiology, gave him a simple reason for the rejection of the report: "political reality."

"It was pretty clear what was going on," Shafey says. "It was basically a coverup. The agriculture industry wanted to continue to use that method because it was cheap and effective."

"But there were health concerns, and elected officials should have been the ones to make the decision whether to proceed with the spraying," Shafey says. "My superiors changed the findings and covered up for the legislators so they wouldn't have to make an unpopular decision."

Shafey says he told his superiors they could rewrite the report, but he would refuse to sign it. The department did change his report and stated that "findings do not allow an association between malathion . . . applications and reported adverse health effects."

That was a lie, Shafey says. "If politics inform the science, then the science is corrupt. The ones who compromise their findings get ahead."

Shortly afterward, Shafey released his original report to a reporter from The Tampa Tribune, angering his superiors.

In August 1999, Hughes, his supervisor, left the department and eventually was replaced by David Johnson. Shafey says that, within two weeks of Johnson's arrival, Johnson told him he had to conform his professional recommendations to the department's policy "or consider leaving." Shafey says he answered by refusing to do either.

During the next several months, Shafey and Johnson had several run-ins. Johnson ordered that no pesticide-related illnesses or injuries be reported in specific investigations, unless it was proved that a pesticide had been misused, Shafey says. Because it was up to the Department of Agriculture to determine that, the health department was effectively abandoning its responsibility to protect the public, and especially the health of farmworkers.

"Johnson said to me, 'You don't contradict the Department of Agriculture,' " Shafey says.

He recalls that he was also reprimanded by Johnson and Johnson's superior, Heber, for developing guidelines for physicians who encounter pesticide-related health problems and distributing those guidelines for review among health professionals outside the department.

Shafey says that reprimand came after Dow AgroSciences, a leading producer of pesticides, complained to the department. A Dow spokesman did not respond in time for this story.

Shafey says that, at one point, Heber said to him: "We have to consider the impact on the industry of our actions."

"I told them the impact on industry is not my concern," Shafey says. "Protecting workers from poisoning is my responsibility and the responsibility of the department."

'Corrupt' tag reprimanded

Shafey says he told Johnson the department was "corrupt." Johnson then labeled him "insubordinate" and said he should be reprimanded. Heber supported Johnson.

The next month, January 2000, Shafey says, the state Inspector General's Office informed him that his travel vouchers were being investigated.

"I don't think that was coincidence," Shafey says. "I think it was directly tied to my being unwilling to compromise my professional values. It was retaliation."

On March 1, 2000, Heber presented Shafey with a letter telling him he faced dismissal in two weeks because of the travel violations. Another reason given was that he had sent an e-mail to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official questioning the use of certain chemicals in lethal-injection executions in Florida.

Shafey says he slammed a door in Johnson's face that day and, in conversation with another department official, referred to Johnson as "a worm" and "excrement." His final dismissal letter cited that outburst and said he also made an obscene gesture. He was formally dismissed the next day.

Shafey later, as a whistle-blower, sued the state and Heber and Johnson individually, but he lost his cases.

Other Floridians who worked with Shafey during his two-year tenure monitoring the state's massive pesticide use think he was railroaded.

"He got fired for doing his job," says Tirso Moreno, an advocate with the Farmworker Association in Apoka. "He was trying to protect the environment and protect the people, but that got him in trouble with the agricultural industry. The ag industry has tremendous political power in this state."

Shafey himself has moved on, but he says he continues to keep up with the Florida health department and whether it's enforcing federal pesticide regulations.

"The sad thing is, that was five years ago, and pesticide surveillance in Florida is no better today," Shafey says. "In fact, it's worse."

"When it comes to health risks, especially to farmworkers, no one cares. If they get sick, just go out and get more. They are expendable."

Staff writer Christine Stapleton contributed to this story

Special report: Farmworkers and pesticides


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