Pesticides Affect Farmworkers

Sometimes you can feel a breeze from the pesticides they were spraying over there. It felt good. They don’t tell you about the risks.
— Lucas Benitez, “Food Chains”

Who are U.S. Farmworkers?

The United States employs around 3 million farmworkers who work long hours in the hot sun, exposed to pesticides and other toxic chemicals, all so I can have access to low-cost, high-quality fresh fruits and veggies on any given day. Seventy-two percent of these workers are foreign born and nearly half of workers do not have legal authorization to work in the United States. Historically, 4 million guest workers from Mexico were given access to agricultural work in the U.S. due to a shortage of workers in the U.S. This was converted into a Guest Worker program in 1964. In 1994 the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) drove over 2 million Mexican farmers out of business, resulting in an influx of Mexican farmers to the U.S. seeking work and support for their families.

However, agriculture is frequently ranked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as one of the most dangerous industries in the nation. Among the most common injuries reported are symptoms associated with pesticide exposure in both parents and children. According to a 2013 report by the non-profit organization Farmer Justice “Exposed and Ignored”, there is an estimated 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides applied to crops each year in the U.S. farmworkers working in commercial fields suffer serious health risks from pesticide exposure. For example, three mothers in Immokalee, Florida gave birth to infants, known as “Immokalee babies”, with severe birth defects. All three women were exposed to pesticides while harvesting tomatoes, and all three lived within a hundred yards of each other.

 Image from myPalmBeachPost

Image from myPalmBeachPost

One very common type of exposure that poses a significant threat to workers is pesticide drift. When pesticides are sprayed, the wind carries them through the air to surrounding areas, such as nearby fields, homes, schools, and playgrounds where workers and their families live. Other types of exposure include oral, inhalation, eye and dermal, according to the Pesticide Safety Education Program at the University of Kentucky. All types of exposure have the potential of carrying pesticides into the bloodstream and cause severe harm to the body. In fact, prolonged exposure to some types of pesticides can lead to the development of tumors, malignancy or cancer, or even changes in genes or chromosomes.

According to the report mentioned above by Farmworker Justice, pesticides cause workers to suffer from more pesticide related illnesses than any other workforce in the nation. The EPA estimates that over 20,000 workers are poisoned by occupational exposure every year, however, many go without care due to lack of health care or fear of their immigration status becoming known.


So...What’s My Role?

Farm workers provide food for your table by working long hours to put food on their own. As consumers, it is our role to demand our workers have ongoing access to pesticide exposure prevention materials, protective equipment, and healthcare for work-related injuries or illnesses. We have the luxury of being concerned for our own health when it comes to the use of pesticides, however, farmworkers do not. They simply arrive at work to earn a wage that might not even be considered liveable. We must tell others about the potential health risks that pesticides pose to our farmers and their families, and advocate for the banning of the most toxic chemicals used on U.S. farms.

Fortunately, the EPA is making small, important steps. The agency recently implemented notable changes to the WPS as of February 2, 2017. These changes are significant and did not come without the dedication of many industry workers and advocates demanding such changes. They can be found here.

Yet, there is still work to be done. federal government must continue to implement rules protecting the rights and health of farm workers and their families. Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit advocating for the rights of farm workers, provides multiple ways for individuals to respond. The organization encourages individuals to: 

  1. Demand that pesticide poisoning incidents be reported on a national level to increase transparency to citizens and to make necessary decisions regarding medical care, public health, and pesticide regulation.
  2. Help push for workers who regularly handle neurotoxic (toxins that negatively affect the nervous system) be medically monitored to discover overexposures, and to prevent irreversible damage. They suggest that no-spray buffer zones be implemented around schools, homes, parks, other areas prone to aerial drift.
  3. Support research on the long-term effects of pesticides on farmworker health, measures to reduce exposure, and safer alternatives be expanded.
  4. Speak up so that the entire food system, including fast food and supermarkets, must recognize their social impact and responsibility.

As consumers, we have significant power. We must demand that supermarkets and food companies collaborate with farmworker organizations and farmers to learn how to reduce risk to workers. They are at the top of the food chain (no pun intended) and have the power to demand stronger governmental protections and oversight on our farms. However, they are unaware of how to best provide for consumers if we are silent.

- Written by Melanie Conover

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