As pesticide use grows heavier on most American farms, agricultural workers are pushing for more protections from the often poisonous chemicals. On Tuesday, these workers asked Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency to beef up the worker protection standards governing the amount of acceptable pesticide exposure. Many companies ignore existing regulations because their largely immigrant workforce often does not know how or is too afraid to report violations.
More than half of farm workers are undocumented immigrants, while many more are migrant workers or legal residents. Employers often take advantage of these workers’ precarious immigration status, threatening to turn them over to immigration officials if they speak out. According to a survey of New Mexico farm workers, managers told workers they would lose their jobs if they refused to work in direct contact with pesticides. Workers are often not warned about the chemicals they are working with, and do not know they have been poisoned until they start vomiting or have trouble breathing. Their families are also at risk; workers are told not to hug their children when they get home from work until they have showered and changed their clothes.
Studies on pesticide exposure’s effect on farm workers are scarce, but generally workers and their children have suffered short-term symptoms like vomiting, muscle cramps, and skin rashes as well as long term problems like leukemia, brain cancer, birth defects, nerve damage, and hormonal imbalances.
A new report from Farmworker Justice details how crews are regularly exposed to crop dusters spreading heavy clouds of pesticides for hours every day. The EPA estimates that roughly 20,000 farm workers are poisoned every year by pesticides, but because of many immigrants’ fear of reporting incidents and inability to seek medical care, the number is likely much higher. The report highlights the story of one worker, Graciela, whose daughter contracted leukemia after working alongside her mother on a farm in Florida.
“I think now about how the very nature of cutting ferns exposes me to pesticides,” Graciela said. “First of all, we are working under these tarps every day, and because they are so low down, the chemicals can’t really escape into the air. And in order to cut the ferns and get those nice long stems that we need, we have to put our faces practically down into them. I realize now how dangerous this is. We are breathing in those pesticides all day long, and how could they not cause us harm.”
Farm workers in DC today are calling for more pesticide safety training for workers, transparent explanations of the types of pesticides used, and more medical monitoring of workers exposed to neurotoxic chemicals.
But simply telling workers to take precautions may not be enough. As Occupational and Environmental Health Director of Farmworker Justice Virginia Ruiz testified, “The close proximity of agricultural fields to residential areas and schools makes it nearly impossible for farmworkers and their families to escape exposure because pesticides are in the air they breathe and the food they eat, and the soil where they work and play.”