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Dozens of teen workers sprayed in Ill. cornfield

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URBANA – Almost 80 teenagers were expected to be sent home from an eastern Illinois hospital Thursday after being accidentally sprayed with fungicide from a crop-dusting plane as they worked in a cornfield, officials said.

The 79 teens were decontaminated by firefighters at the field just outside Pesotum and then taken to the Carle Foundation Hospital's emergency room in Urbana to be treated for what appeared to be minor ailments, hospital officials said.

Emergency room director Allen Rinehart said some of the teen workers had irritated skin but that they were all stable and being released to their parents as they were seen.

"There's been a couple that have had minor irritations, but nothing significant," Rinehart said as the last group of teens, wearing blue jumpsuits and many carrying coolers and lunch boxes, stood nearby waiting to enter the emergency room. Many joked and talked as they waited.

The teenagers were detasseling corn when the chemical drifted over them from a plane that was crop-dusting an adjacent field, said Tom Helscher, a spokesman for Monsanto, the St. Louis-based company using the field to produce seed corn. Pesotum is about 15 miles south of Urbana.

Brad Rollings' 13-year-old son, Tyler, was one of those sprayed with the chemical.

"He said that he heard the plane go over the top and it felt like it was raining for a minute, and then he said they hollered at them to get out of the field," Rollings, who is from nearby Villa Grove, said outside the hospital. He said his son seemed fine and expected him to be released soon.

"As soon as he called me, he kept telling me over and over, 'Dad, I'm fine, you don't need to come pick me up,'" Rollings said.

The accident happened just before 8:40 a.m., Champaign County acting Deputy Fire Chief Dave Ferber said. The department's firefighters helped decontaminate the teens with soap and water, he said.

Spokesmen for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and state Bureau of Environmental Programs said the agencies are investigating the incident.

Detasselers – commonly teenagers looking for summer jobs – pull the pollinating tassels off the top of corn plants that will produce seed for future planting.

The teens were working for Team Corn, a Princeton.-based company that contracts for Monsanto, a woman who answered the company's phone said before referring further questions to Monsanto.

It wasn't immediately clear what the chemical was or who flew the plane.

Federal workplace safety regulations allow children as young as 12 to work on farms in jobs that OSHA doesn't consider hazardous provided their parents' consent. Detasseling is one of those jobs. Even younger children can do some types of farm work under certain conditions.

Team Corn's website says the company hires detasselers as young as 12 for work across Illinois, while teens have to be 14 to be hired in Iowa and Indiana.

Pay ranges from $7.25 to $10 an hour, depending on the workers' speed and ability, according to the website. Work crews are led by leaders who must be at least 17, according to the site.

In 2011, two 14-year-old girls working as detasselers in a corn field near Tampico in northwest Illinois for Monsanto and another company were electrocuted by irrigation equipment. OSHA found the companies weren't at fault and that lightning may have struck the irrigation system. The parents filed wrongful death lawsuits against the companies which are still pending.

Rollings said he worked as a detasseler as a child and wouldn't hesitate to let his son return to the job.

"I have no concerns about it whatsoever," he said.

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: http://twitter.com/davidmercerap

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