Pesticides and Farm Workers. A Labor and an Environmental Issue.

This week’s must read comes from Susan Freinkel writing for FERN in The Nation on long term research into the impact of pesticides on the children of farm workers in California:

When Eskenazi and Bradman began visiting the valley, they were met with some wariness. Growers feared they had an anti-pesticide agenda, and farmworkers worried they could lose their jobs if they agreed to participate. The researchers connected with local clinics and gave gift cards to families who enrolled. Over a two-year period, from 1999 to 2000, they enrolled a cohort of 601 pregnant women—most born in Mexico, working as or living with farmworkers, and with an income well below the poverty line. As the women gave birth, the researchers began following the children—an initial group of 536—with periodic assessments.

To determine what the children were exposed to in the womb, the researchers took urine and blood samples from the women while pregnant and at delivery. To gauge the presence of pesticides in participants’ homes, the researchers did inspections and took dust samples. And to assess impacts, they questioned the mothers every few years about their children’s behaviors and tracked the kids through periodic tests: physical exams, neurobehavioral assessments, and analyses of their urine, blood, saliva, baby teeth and hair. (Over time, about half of the children dropped out of the study, so in 2010 and 2011, the researchers recruited another 300 9-year-olds to start following.)

All of that information—including more than 150,000 biological samples stored in banks of freezers at a facility in Richmond, California—constitutes a treasure trove of data that Eskenazi and her colleagues have mined for more than a hundred scientific papers. Over the years, they have broadened their investigations to look at the effects of other chemicals to which the CHAMACOS children have been exposed, including fungicides, fumigants, bisphenol A and flame retardants. (They explored the last one because, until recently, California required the retardants to be present in any upholstered furniture sold in the state.) “We call the exposures we’ve looked at ‘the California mix,’” Eskenazi says.

This is what they found:

Prenatal exposure to even tiny amounts of organophosphates—in the parts per trillion range—can have significant impacts on the brain, the CHAMACOS study suggests.

From infancy on, the children of the mothers with the highest levels of organophosphates were at the greatest risk for neurodevelopmental problems. That association was present at every stage the researchers checked in on the kids. At 6 months, they were more likely to have poorer reflexes. At 2, they were at higher risk for pervasive developmental disorder, an autism-related condition, like Asperger’s, in which children have trouble connecting to others. At 5, they were more likely to be hyperactive and have trouble paying attention. At 7, they scored lower on IQ tests, by an average of seven points—the equivalent of being a half-year behind their peers. Eskenazi can’t say whether the associations persist, because she hasn’t been funded to keep looking.

The article underscores one of the biggest fault lines in US agriculture. To me the issues surrounding class and labor issues between produce growers in California and Florida are very different than even the largest family farms in the Midwest. In developing a productive and accurate critique of so-called ‘Big Ag’ on ‘Industrial Agriculture’ it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not just one thing. Large commodity crop farms in the Midwest are almost universally family farms and highly mechanized. They don’t require many hired hands and those they do hire tend to be long term and local. The people handling the pesticides tend have college degrees in agriculture, and relationships with extension agents and sales reps. You can bet if their kids are helping out, they using best practices for handling those pesticides. The same is nowhere near as true for farm workers, especially migrant farm workers in places like California and Florida.

While we should all celebrate (and be more aware of) the tremendous strides that have been made in reducing the amount and toxicity of pesticides in the US, much of that is cold comfort for farm workers.

The one thing the UFW is asking for help with on pesticides is a ban on chlorphyrifos. That says a lot to me.

The two most striking passages to me in the article:

For someone who has spotlighted the disturbing risks of pesticides, Eskenazi is surprisingly unwilling to condemn them. “I see the complexities,” she says. She takes to heart the growers’ insistence that they need to use pesticides. She recognizes that only about 4 percent of the farms in the valley are organic. She knows eating organic produce reduces children’s levels of pesticide exposure, but it’s also more expensive. She knows that 40 percent of the CHAMACOS families are food-insecure and have no stretch in their budgets. “I’m all for more biologically safe ways of growing food,” she says. “But to me, the most important thing is that people have healthy food—and enough of it.” That means ample fruits and vegetables, conventionally grown or organic. “I’m a public health person, and in the scheme of things, diet and quality of diet is more important to me.”

(The EPA requires growers to provide similar basic safety information to farmworkers, but only once every five years. Annual trainings may soon be required under new proposed safety rules for farmworkers.)

Camacho’s talks contain simple, concrete advice. Wear gloves at work. Wash your hands before eating. Don’t take kids to the fields or let them ride in the car home from work. Wash your work clothes separately from the family’s laundry. Carefully wash any produce brought home from the fields.

To some extent, such precautions run up against the hard realities of migrant workers’ lives. “You know everybody understands, but it’s very hard for them,” says Jesús López, a former farmworker and longtime activist who is on the CHAMACOS advisory board.

As he makes it a point to emphasize, migrant workers have no control over conditions in the field. Regulators consider it safe to work in a field right next to one that has just been treated with pesticides and is posted with warning signs. So when a laborer is told to pick broccoli three feet from the treated field, she’s in no position to refuse. Driving around the fields surrounding Salinas, López points repeatedly to crews picking crops with their bare hands. If the growers don’t supply gloves, he says, the workers are loath to go out and buy them. It’s another expense for people making poverty wages. Even advice like washing work clothes separately can be hard to follow for those who rely on pay machines at a laundromat. “Do you think they’re willing to spend $2 a day to do that?” López asks. CHAMACOS has provided “very good information, but I don’t see any change in the industry.”

This is as much a labor issue as it is an environmental issue. The solution here lies as much with the Department of Labor and the NLRB as it does with the EPA. It’s a disgrace that farm workers are not covered by the NLRB. While they have gained protections of the FLSA, there are still carve outs that undermine their rights and bargaining power. While pesticides will continue to be necessary for growing the enormous quantities of affordable food the nation demands, things like gloves, annual training and the right not to work three feet away from a field that has just been sprayed are the least that can be done to address these issues.

Warning Signs: How Pesticides Harm the Young Brain
Susan Freinkel |The Nation | 11 March 2014

Time for action on this kid-harming chemical
The United Farm Workers

Slavery in the Tomato Fields
Barry Estabrook | The Atlantic | 8 June 2011

Our Farmers Get An A+ For Low Pesticide Residues
Steve Savage | Applied Mythology | 24 February 2014

Why You Probably Don’t Know That Pesticides Have Changed
Steve Savage | Applied Mythology | 24 January 2014

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About Marc Brazeau

Free lance cultural attaché. Writing at REALFOOD.ORG.

6 responses to “Pesticides and Farm Workers. A Labor and an Environmental Issue.”

  1. David says :

    One thing that I would like to understand is how this applies to non-farm workers? While it is clear that exposure to organophosphates in farm workers can lead to developmental issues for their children is there any link to residual pesticide exposure (specifically organophosphates) and developmental issues in the general population?

  2. David says :

    Thank you. I have read most of those posts but I am still left wondering about the effects of organophosphates (OP) on consumers especially since it appears parts per trillion can affect developing neurology and I’m unsure about consumer exposure. The last think I read about OPs on consumers was a few years back showing they cleared out of children’s systems pretty quickly. Don’t remember if it discussed longer-term effects or blood concentration. If you have more information it would be appreciated.

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