The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Widespread Pesticide Use Causing Illness Among Immigrant Workers

by Rebecca Clarren

Monitoring in Washington State reveals that a significant number of farmworkers who work with pesticides have harmful levels of chemicals in their blood, fueling activists’ calls for increased regulation.

Feb. 15, 2005 – Each summer, as the grapes clinging to their vines turned the purple of a deep bruise, Juan Rios felt like he was being poisoned. His head ached, he felt dizzy and nauseous, and his nose would not stop running. A farmworker, who moved to eastern Washington from Mexico, Rios, who now works for the farmworker union, used to spray pesticides at a winery from 3 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., five days a week.

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"I remember the first time I worked with the pesticidos, I was wearing a full mask while we were spraying but my nose, it wouldn’t stop bleeding," said Rios. "I was worried."

Now a new study finds that Rios is not alone. According to a report by three farmworker advocacy groups, one in five Washington state farmworkers who mix or spray pesticides experiences significant health effects. The study, conducted jointly by the Farmworker Justice Fund, United Farm Workers and Farm Worker Pesticide Project, analyzed the results from the first year of a Washington state program that monitors the blood levels of farmworkers who spray pesticides.

Specifically, the program tested for cholinesterase, an essential enzyme to the body’s nervous system. Some commonly used pesticides are known to depress levels of cholinesterase, leading to a range of reactions, from headaches or seizures to death.

Pesticides poison farmworkers throughout the country, harming as many as 300,000 farmworkers annually, according to estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. -- yet, Washington and California are the only states to require monitoring.

California farmwokers exhibit elevated levels of childhood leukemia, and cancers of the stomach, uterus, cervix, and brain.

While there are powerful forces working to maintain the status quo, the report spurs a renewed push for policy and regulatory changes at both the state and federal levels.

"This is a public health emergency and a tremendous injustice that can’t be ignored," said Carol Dansereau, director of the Farm Worker Pesticide Project. "The reality for these workers must change. It wouldn’t be tolerated in any other workplace or community."

While relatively little research has been done to study the long-term effects of human exposure to pesticides, existing data suggests that farmworkers and their children are vulnerable to a painful array of illness. California farmwokers exhibit elevated levels of childhood leukemia, and cancers of the stomach, uterus, cervix, and brain, according to a study published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2001.

Five-year-old children in Mexico who were exposed to pesticides suffer giant lags in development -- they cannot catch a ball, draw pictures of people, or perform simple tasks involving memory and neuro-muscular skills, according to research by Elizabeth Guillette, a University of Florida anthropologist. Other studies link pesticide exposure to infertility, neurological disorders, and birth defects.

Pesticide and fertilizer companies made over $1.1 million in campaign contributions.

Despite such daunting findings, most farmworkers have few options for other employment. The vast majority are recent immigrants who do not speak English. Since nearly half are undocumented, and only a slim slice are unionized, relatively few complain to state or federal agencies for fear of losing their jobs or being deported, according to a 2000 Government Accounting Office report.

Even if they were to speak up about pesticide exposure, fighting for protection is an uphill battle. In 1939 there were 32 pesticide products registered in the US; there are now approximately 20,000 and farmers spray an estimated 675 million pounds, according to a 2001 EPA report. This industry is big business with large political clout: just last year, pesticide and fertilizer companies made over $1.1 million in campaign contributions, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, a government and industry watchdog that tracks the effect of campaign money on policy.

Both the agrichemical industry and conventional farmers have opposed establishing monitoring systems at the state or federal level. The Washington State program was only implemented in the wake of a Supreme Court decision and over 20 years of lobbying by farmworkers’ advocates.

Intended as a preemptive system to identify overexposed workers before they become sick, in the 2004 season, 123 of the 580 pesticide handlers who received both base line and follow-up testing saw their cholinesterase levels drop by more than 20 percent. While that is not enough to see symptoms, it is more than a normal fluctuation in the enzyme levels and indicates that the chemicals are impacting workers. Of those pesticide handlers who were over exposed, twenty-six, or 4 percent, showed a 30 percent drop or greater, triggering by state law their immediate reassignment to a task unrelated to pesticide use.

Still, the monitoring data is far from perfect, says Dansereau. Medical providers reported that some workers refused blood tests for fear of workplace retribution if results showed that pesticides had impacted their blood levels. Additionally, farmworkers’ advocates consider the monitoring results conservative given that only a portion of workers were tested -- those handling the pesticides that contain carbamates and organophosphates for 50 or more hours a month.

This year, the monitoring will expand to include those who work with the chemicals 30 hours or more, but that still leaves out significant numbers of workers who tend and harvest the produce or who spend less than 30 hours a month applying the chemicals.

A National Institute of Health-funded study, published in the February 2004 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, found that the overwhelming majority of farmworkers in Washington’s Yakima valley had elevated levels of organophosphate metabolites in their urine. The results encompassed workers performing a multitude of tasks, from directly preparing and spraying the pesticides to irrigating and harvesting the crops. The study also examined the contamination levels of farmworkers’ children and discovered detectible levels of pesticide chemicals in urine samples taken from most of the children.

That is why the coalition calls on state and federal leaders to establish a program that would end the use of the most toxic pesticides and fund research to develop alternative pest reduction methods. The groups also want the federal government to instate a national monitoring program for all pesticide handlers.

While they have convinced Washington state Democratic Representative Steve Conway to sponsor legislation that would phase out the use of the most toxic pesticides by 2012, the likelihood of its passage is slim. Both the governor’s office and the Department of Labor and Industry oppose the proposed bill, saying that such policy changes are premature.

"After just the first year, we felt that we didn’t have firm enough data to make policy conclusions," said Elaine Fischer, spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Industry. "There’s a lot of things to consider, and we’ll know more in the second year"

The agency may offer policy recommendations as early as January 2006, said Fischer.

If the department follows through, those recommendations are likely to create a spin cycle of debate between the agricultural industry and worker advocates. Already, grower groups labeled the report as no more than "anti-pesticide activist PR." Phasing out pesticides would cripple agriculture in Washington, predicts Dean Boyer of the Washington Farm Bureau, forcing the industry to outsource jobs to other countries and to fire tens of thousands of workers. Plus, he said, the report overstates the situation.

"Pesticide exposure is not a big problem," said Boyer, citing that only 4 percent of workers were impacted enough to require removal from the work site.

Taken on a national scale, 4 percent is "hardly nothing," said Shelley Davis of the Farmworker Justice Fund, based in Washington, DC. The bottom line, she added, is that such dangerous conditions would not exist if the workers in question were white, if they could vote and if they had money.

"There is an undercurrent of racism involved here. These folks are Latino and they are seen as disposable workers," said Davis. "This situation does not speak well of us as a nation."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Rebecca Clarren is a contributing journalist.

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