Pesticide Threat Looms Large Over Farmworker Families
By Michelle Chen
In These Times
October 20, 2012
No matter how good your next meal tastes, it's likely it made society ill.
A new analysis by the Pesticide Action Network North
America (PAN) draws a disturbing connection between
pesticides in our food system and serious health
problems among women and children. The report reviews
empirical research linking agricultural chemicals to
birth defects, neurological disorders, childhood cancers
and reproductive problems.
Some of these chemicals make their way into the foods we
eat, but they are more acutely concentrated in the
environments surrounding farmlands. Children in or near
farming areas can be exposed through myriad channels,
from contaminated soil to the air in playgrounds.
But children in farmworker communities are especially at
risk. While the report confirms the growing public
concerns about health risks permeating our food chain,
it also shows how socioeconomic inequalities can shovel
many of the worst effects onto exploited, impoverished workers.
There's been much public debate over the importance of
organic produce, sustainable farming and regulating
genetically modified foods--usually spurred by concerns
over consumer health or animal rights. We hear less
about the safety concerns that affect the workers who
handle our fruits and vegetables before anyone else. For
many Latino migrant workers, there's no equivalent of a
comprehensive safety label--no option to avoid the
ubiquitous poisons in the field. Many worry that to
complain about working conditions would mean being
fired. Others simply--and quite reasonably--have little
faith in the anemic government regulatory systems.
PAN cites research showing that pesticide injuries are
prevalent among agricultural workers. Various studies
cited in the report also suggest an epidemic of chemical
"drift" from fields into nearby homes and neighborhoods.
According to a 2009 report by the advocacy groups Earth
Justice and Farmworker Justice (FWJ), "a growing number
of epidemiological studies link pesticide drift to
specific adverse health effects in humans, including
autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson's disease, and
childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia."
While the problem is politically invisible, the effects
are all too apparent. The PAN report describes the
experience of Ana Duncan Pardo, a community health
activist in North Carolina, who had a jarring encounter
with farmworker families:
Within five minutes I had noted multiple cleft
palates and several children with apparent Down
Syndrome. It was shocking and disturbing to walk
into a room with a group of parents and children
that easily represented three to four times the
national average for birth defects.
The effect is likely compounded by the widespread use of
child labor in agriculture--children barely in their
teens can legally work on farms. That puts kids in daily
contact with toxins that could irreparably harm their
brains and bodies.
A FWJ briefing paper points to a history of vast
dissonance between the federal regulation of harmful
pesticides for heavily exposed workers, and parallel
standards for the general public. The Federal
Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act establishes
public health-based safety protections, for example, but
environmental advocates point out that farmworker
families' health vulnerabilities are neglected and
essentially ignored in regulatory assessments of the
social costs of industrial pesticide use.
Children of farmworker families are left with far weaker
protections despite their special vulnerability. Despite
some restrictions on child workers handling pesticides,
according to FWJ, "Children under 16 can still handle
Category III or IV pesticides even though the chronic
hazards associated with these chemicals include
`potential neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity,
endocrine disruption, and carcinogenic effects.'"
Even if they don't work in the fields, the children of
farmworkers are not necessarily safe in their own homes.
Virginia Ruiz, FWJ's director of Occupational &
Environmental Health, explains that farmworkers working
with pesticides carry "take-home residues" on their
clothes and skin. While safety warnings recommend
avoiding physical contact with contaminated workers,
Ruiz says, "It's sort of unrealistic expectation of
people to refrain from hugging their children and other
family members as soon as they get home."
The PAN analysis urges consumers and parents to take
action for stronger safety protections. These could
include mandates to phase harmful pesticides out of the
market, and promoting pesticide-free school lunches and playgrounds.
Nonetheless, the battle against the pesticide threats on
farms can't be limited to the consumer end of the food
chain. Farmworkers need to be engaged as stakeholders in
pursuing just solutions to the unique risks posed to
their communities. Farmworkers have played a leading
role pushing for tighter EPA regulations as well as
grassroots efforts to mobilize communities against
pesticide drift. For example, a community-driven
campaign in California's Central Valley led to the
creation of buffer zones to keep pesticide contamination
away from sensitive locations like schools, farmworker
camps and residential areas.
Kristin Schafer, coauthor of PAN's report, tells Working
In These Times, "Farmworker families were essential to
the success of these efforts--some working behind the
scenes, others speaking out to demand protections for
their families." She adds that environmental monitoring
projects in other farmworker communities have provided
opportunities for laborers "to document pesticide drift
from neighboring fields, and use [this] as scientific
evidence to advance these protections." Community
activists are now pressing California's regulatory
authorities to transition farms away from pesticides and
toward greener alternatives.
Still, in every policy debate, farmworker families will
face tremendous barriers of race, language ability,
political disenfranchisement and poverty. Those aren't
chemical threats, but they constitute the climate of
oppression that blankets the nation's farms, and that
corrosive cloud is now drifting into all our communities.