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How Pesticide Drift Caused One Man To Lose His Voice

In the last of a three-part series on pesticide drift, WFIU looks at how exposure to drifting fungicide has affected one man's ability to speak.

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    Photo: Sehvilla Mann

    Edwards stands by the barn where he was working when the crop duster flew overhead.

  • Edwards papers

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    Photo: Sehvilla Mann

    Some of the papers Edwards has gathered on Headline fungicide.

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    Photo: Sehvilla Mann

    The fence at the edge of Edwards' property, looking toward his neighbor's field.

This is the last story in a three-part series on pesticide drift.

Larry Edwards stands in front of a small barn by his home in rural Franklin. He was fixing shingles on the roof in the summer of 2010 when a crop duster passed overhead. The plane was so low he could see the pilot.

“I could see his face and tell what color the hair was and everything. And, I mean – he had to see me too,” he says.

Edwards says the pilot did not motion for him to move, so he kept working while the plane began spraying his neighbor’s field just across the fence line. But then the man sprayed Edwards’ pasture, spooking his horses.

He decided he had better head inside.

“By the time I climbed off my barn and was walking up through here to go into the house, he came right across here and dropped – pulled the trigger on me. And it was just a fog. It was moisture. I could feel it hit me this time,” he says.

Soon his throat was sore, and he was having trouble breathing. His doctor told him to go to the emergency room.

“They didn’t even sign me in. I was having so much trouble, they just took me on back and put me on oxygen right then,” he says.

Few Citations Lead To Fines

The state chemist’s office later determined pilot Walter Randy Taylor had ignored instructions not to spray the fungicide Headline where it could drift onto someone. They fined him $1,000 and suspended his license for six months. The case summary shows this was the third time Taylor had been cited for drift violations.

From 2010 through 2012, only 16 percent of applicators who violated drift laws paid a fine. The rest received a warning or citation, according to data from the state chemist’s office, which also shows when fines are handed down they usually amount to less than $500.

State Chemist pesticide program administrator Dave Scott says the agency only seeks stringent punishment for violators “when somebody either has demonstrated they have total disregard for the regulatory requirement or they’ve been through it several times before and the fines obviously don’t do any good, and we’re concerned about public safety.”

Scott says the agency’s “biggest hammer” is license revocation, but that means putting people out of business.

Taylor’s employer, Milhon Air of Martinsville, remains in business, even though applicators for the company racked up 10 drift violations from 2008 through 2011. The state cited Milhon Air along with the applicator in seven of those cases. But those files offer no hint the company’s status as a registered pesticide business was ever in question.

Milhon Air did not respond to email and voice-mail messages requesting comment on Edwards’ case.

Permanent Damage

Edwards says someone from Milhon called him each day for two days after the incident, asking him how he was doing.

“I kept telling him I wasn’t getting any better,” Edwards says.

Edwards says his breathing went back to normal after a few days, but not his voice. When he spoke, it was only a whisper. Doctors discovered the pesticide mist had damaged Edwards’ larynx.

Months of speech therapy helped his voice improve, but Edwards says he still grows hoarse and gets an itch in his throat after just a few minutes of talking. He cannot sing like he used to. He led auctions since the 1980s, but now struggles to sustain his voice. And he can’t shout.

“My daughter lives about a quarter-mile down here, and I could stand out here and we could yell back and forth to each other,” he says. “I can’t yell to her now because my voice won’t let me yell where she can hear me from here.”

He sued Milhon Air for damages and settled for an amount he would not disclose, though he says he considers it to have been less than fair.

He says he realizes he just has to live with the damage to his voice. But he thinks Taylor and Milhon got away with a slap on the wrist.

In any case, Taylor is no longer a licensed pesticide applicator in Indiana. His case went to collections after he failed to pay his fine.

Max McCombs and Jackson Caldwell contributed to this report.

Sehvilla Mann

Sehvilla Mann has been reporting for WFIU since summer 2012, when she began working toward her master's degree in journalism at Indiana University. Her work has won three awards from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. A native of Urbana, Illinois, she is not sure she understands hills but enjoys looking at the ones around Bloomington.

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