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Pesticides Taking Toll on Farmworkers

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15 July 2013, 5:31 AM
Farmworkers from across the nation come to D.C. to secure safeguards from toxic pesticides
A cropduster sprays chemicals over agricultural fields. (Brian Brown Images)

This is the first in a two part series on protections for farmworkers from pesticides.

Read part two, Farmworker Mother To EPA: We Deserve Protections, and the accompanying special feature, Pesticides: The Workplace Hazard The EPA Is Ignoring.


If the apples in your local store are bug-free because of pesticides, then you might ask who the pesticides hurt before the apples left the farm. That’s because many pesticides are toxic enough to seriously harm the humans who work in the orchards.

A growing number of Americans recognize the hazards of toxic chemicals and as a result have reduced their consumption of produce grown with pesticides to protect their family’s health. But while U.S. consumers are finding ways to protect themselves, far too little is being done to protect farmworkers, who are on the frontlines of exposure to high levels of toxic pesticides.

To address this urgent need, this week farmworkers from across the nation are meeting in Washington, D.C. with their members of Congress to call for stronger protections from hazardous pesticides. These farmworkers and their allies seek to strengthen the Worker Protection Standard under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, a set of outdated safeguards the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to revise for more than 20 years despite overwhelming evidence of their inadequacy.

Farmworkers pick strawberries in Wayne County, NY. (Courtesy of Alina Diaz / Alianza Nacional de Campesinas)Farmworkers pick strawberries in Wayne County, NY.
(Courtesy of Alina Diaz /
Alianza Nacional de Campesinas)

“If policy makers truly listened to the stories of what is going on, laws would change,” said Mily Treviño-Sauceda, a former farmworker who founded a women’s farmworker group in California and is president of the National Farmworker Women’s Alliance. She added that if farmworkers aren’t protected from pesticide exposure, neither are their communities, their school-aged children, nor the food our plates.

There are an estimated 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides applied to crops annually in the United States, and thousands of farmworkers each year experience pesticide poisoning. It is well-documented that a significant number of the nation’s estimated 1–2 million farmworkers and their families are exposed to toxic pesticides. These exposures result in serious short and long-term health impacts, including stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, nausea, headaches and even death. Long-term impacts include delayed and include infertility, birth defects, endocrine disruption, neurological disorders and cancer.

“We are still dealing with very dangerous chemicals in agriculture,” said Edward Zuroweste, Chief Medical Officer for Migrant Clinicians Network. Zuroweste also spent more than 20 years as a doctor treating farmworkers on apple orchards in rural Pennsylvania. “No one can dispute that these chemicals are dangerous, they are carcinogenic, they can cause birth defects, and they can cause death from acute poisoning.”

“The laws of our country afford far less workplace protection to farmworkers than most workers receive in other industrial sectors,” explains Earthjustice president Trip Van Noppen. The farmworkers and advocates are asking the EPA to update the Worker Protection Standard to:

  • Provide more frequent and more comprehensible pesticide safety training for farmworkers
  • Include information about farmworker families’ exposures to pesticides in the required training materials
  • Ensure that workers receive information about specific pesticides used in their work
  • Require safety precautions and protective equipment limiting farmworkers’ contact with pesticides
  • Require medical monitoring of workers who handle neurotoxic pesticides

“Despite the clear hazards of their work, farmworkers are not even guaranteed basic on-the-job protections to mitigate exposure to the highly toxic pesticides that threaten their well-being and that of their families and children,” said Van Noppen. “The threat facing millions of farmworkers who work in our nation’s fields, farms and nurseries is not only toxic but fundamentally unjust, and the EPA has a legal duty to correct this.”

EPA does have worker protection standards and the EPA provides education and training for businesses. Some businesses are very good stewards of our environment and care about the health of citizens and workers. But, the businesses who do not care and feel that the cost of business is just paying an occasional fine, operate under the radar. That is why government regulations are necessary, not everyone is going to "police" themselves.

Thank goodness for organizations such as yours who are watchdogs for the people who need a voice. America is on the cusp of no return, if we don't start dramatically protecting our environment and citizens from unscrupulous practices, it will be too late.

I definitel agree powerful multinational companies are ruining the planet. Power and greed seem to be the norm nowadays. We have drug companies/oil companies/tobacco industry/cosmetic industry, to name but a few, hell bent on destroying the planet just so they can get richer and more powerful. The will allow nothing to stand in their way.

Interfere with nature at your peril. We are beginning to see the fruits of their labour everywhere. The whole eco system is breaking down and nature is in danger.

We will live to regret this for sure.

having grown up black and broke in america, i learned very early on in life that the folks that run this country could care less about the welfare of average folks. you must be rich or thought of as somebody to get any attention from our government, or the folks that make these rules. i feel awfully sorry for these farmworkers because they have a long battle on their hands. its absolutly horrible that this crap is going on with our farm workers. i have fought many battles within my years on this earth and i see the same thing over and over and over again, they act as if they care were in actuality they just appease us to make us feel as if they do. i don't know what to do except to fall on my knees and take it to *GOD* and wait for the justice from *GOD*. as a caring human being i will do what i can to help this situation, however my time and efforts may end up on non caring ears but like martin luther king, meger evers and a bunch of others that lost their life trying to help others i will open my big mouth to help you farm workers. if i cant do anything else but to be a big mouth i will to save one mom, one dad from this awful mess. you all deserve the best. you work hard to put food on our tables and we kill your family. i would like to say i am awfully sorry and i will keep you all in my prayers.

Farmworkers deserve protection!

These people work hard 2 bring us the food on our tables. There health &wellbeing is VIP 2 me. Please help keep them heslthy.

It is all about cosmetics and marketing, and the health of the agricultural workers and consumers be damned. It won't hurt to eat a worm which is probably high protein or an apple that has been been marred by a bit of consumption of a pies of fruit that has been eaten by an insect or slug. I have washed off tomatoes that were partially eaten by a slug and ate them. I have eaten apples that were not sprayed and looked imperfect and found them to be perfectly tasty and refreshing. Often the beautiful red delicious apple that is perfect in appearance is pithy and lacking in flavor.

What gets me is: if one orchard or farm can produce organically then ALL CROPS can be produced organically!

Our ENTIRE eco-system is being murdered off all for the sake of money in "your" pockets. Without a thought of these peoples' lives, & as I said, the eco-system you continue to use these ingredients to murder, slowly, hard-working individuals! I cannot tell you the last time I saw a swarm of butterflies or bees. I KNOW this is due to the use of these pesticides. The people that are forced to breathe this poison in will likely at some point end up with a life-threatening malady. STOP THE GREED! These are human beings, & nature that you are killing~~murdering! Sincerely, D. Ledbetter

Stop this now!

Mr. Botes, and the application of dangerous pesticides while farmers are in the field is not murder? At very minimum it is slow murder as often the results kill you slower with cancers, and many other diseases. Our EPA needs to teach farmers how to do polyculture, not monoculture which requires more pesticides, and stop supporting major grocery chains over farmers markets and local farms. We have difficulty getting raw milk legally in many states, and must work through a hush hush system. Our EPA is in cahoots with the BGH farmers of big corporations believing there is no adverse side effects from BGH, yet milk that does come from BGH cows is the only type that requires special lactose pills for drinking it or eating milk based products. We live in the eastern shore of Maryland where there are hundreds of farms trying to sell their products, but can't to the big supermarket chains, and must through farmers markets and CSAs. If we just all bought local foods here, but so few people support it because we don't even have local community meetings to meet and know our neighbors. As a result our area is overrun by corporate developers who want to build where there is no infrustructure, and farmers give up their precious land to developers, and the Chesapeake Bay and our groundwater get more polluted with arsenic and bacteria and pesticides.

What does it say about our wonderful country if we are poisoning the people working here and those that live near by or drink the water from there or eat the fruit.... EPA, please do your job!!

This is not only dangerous but abusive and criminal. It is another reason why we need governmental protection, why we have programs that are suppose to protect us from corporate greed. How can employees be put in such unsafe conditions? How can our FOOD? WATER, and ecosystem (the bee population, for example!) be allowed to be exposed to the to the poisons? It is crucial that we pull together, regardless of the power, wealth, and corrupt control of these corporations and make farming safe - against toxins and dangerous conditions that go not belong in farming! We must do it NOW before the consequences on our health become worse than it already is (but so carefully covered up). This is a very serious problem!! Thank you.

I agree, what is this country doing? President Obama must look into how the food at our tables is being picked and the people who work diligently, without much pay and are being killed and sickened with disease by the same carcenogins we are scream we don't want on our fruits and vegetables. The people who work hard for little money are treated in conditions not fit for a human and it is shameful, to say the least. It should be stopped immediately. In this day in age, there must be a way to have fruit and vegetables safe for picking in an environment friendly to the workers but without the hazards and still get rid of the pests and disease that harm the crops. I, for one, hope President Obama will take heed, for his table has fruit on it every morning, as do millions of people in the United States.

Monsanto is a corporate monster. They don't care about people, just profits and control of our government and its regulations. The force we're really fighting is "Citizens United". This ruling allowed the buying of our government both nationally and locally. The bought out entertainment based media is of little use when it comes to things of real national importance, they're busy trying to cover stories designed to divide the middle and lower class and control what really matters, the well being of the people of the United States and the world. Their myopic entertainment allows energy brokers, war profiteers, and crooked politics to control our nation. Greed and power is root to all evil, I leaarned this when I was 6 years old. The typical American is busy playing with their trinkets and cell phone toys and are oblivious to how their being played. Hitler and his propogana minister would be proud. During the Valdeez oil spill in 1989, Exxon sent every high school biology teacher in the US a video tape (I still have it) declaring how this disaster was a great opportunity for scientic study and advancement. Hell, to watch the tape, you'd think the spill was a blessing. Exxon never did clean it up and two years ago the Supreme Court ruled the did not have to pay their fines and repairations. This tells you who rules in this country.

They deserve healthy air.

Many accounts of pesticide dangers have been reported, These range from insane advertisements of spraying children with DDT to show it was harmless, but causing serious illnesses, to responsible city council actions involving medical personnel to advise on community mosquito control. Some persons are hyper-sensitive to certain types of pesticides, with serious consequences if even mildly overexposed. I have had that experience with sensitivity to systemic pesticide versions causing excessive heart rate and blood pressure with temporarily impaired vision due to a commercial spraying of ants inside a large building. I asked the workman "why not attack the mound outside?' and the response was "these ants in the building keep me employed". Many beneficial insects and small birds such as bees and hummingbirds, are affected as well. Many religious groups either ban or at least shun the use of certain toxic pesticides in favor of the use of effective simple soaps and surfactants. Thanks

I find it very frightening that our Government illustrates thorough and complete lack of support care respect and concern for American Lives, and Our Food and Want of Clean Foods over that of corporate greed.

Our Government completely and utterly fail American Citizens born and raised here and our visitors when they place poisons on our food without concern for our quality our health an our livelihoods.

It is disgustingly frightening how they place pesticides on and in our food yet have no concern for Human or Animal Life or Quality of Life.

How we ever begin to trust our Government when they approve of poisoning us each and every day?!

When I was in graduate school in California, I had a part time job in a building that overlooked strawberry fields. Pesticides were being dropped on the fields with workers in the fields. Many people think that pesticide exposure is limited to workers in California, but it is not. Following the crops from lettuce and other produce to apple picking, migrant workers are exposed to pesticides in Ohio and in other northeastern and southeastern states.

In the 1950s, there was a national scandal about living conditions on the farms of produce producers. That was nothing compared to the pesticide exposure today. Documentation shows horrific consequences of that exposure, and it is imperative that we protect lives. Workers have a right to a safe workplace.

the farm workers desearve safe work enveriments and the chimicals end up on our dinner table's as well hello no fix it

You may have pesticides to counter but in South Africa farmers are murdered on their farms.
Democracy in USA is want you must be thankfull for.

Several years ago (1988-89) I participated in a study of farmworkers in California and the potential effects of pesticides on early term miscarriages as well as loss of fertility among males. This study was conducted through UC Davis and the Department of Epidemiology.
You might want to contact them regarding the outcome and possible publication of their research.

Good luck with your work.

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