Coming from across the nation and from the frontlines of exposure to high levels of toxic pesticides, farmworkers met with their members of Congress on July 16, 2013 to call for stronger protections from pesticides. These farmworkers and their allies seek to strengthen outdated safeguards the EPA has failed to revise for more than 20 years—despite overwhelming evidence of their inadequacy.
Alexis Guild, Farmworker Justice's Migrant Health Policy Analyst, with Ohio constituents Mario Vargas, a farmworker organizer, his daughter Myra Vargas and Leticia Vargas at the Longworth House Office Building, before one of their meetings on Capitol Hill.
An estimated 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States—with our nation's 1–2 million farmworkers facing the highest threat from the health impacts of these chemicals.
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The Ohio group walks past the U.S. Capitol as they head to their meeting in the Hart Senate Office Building.
Farmworkers and advocates are calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to update the Worker Protection Standard to provide more frequent pesticide training for farmworkers, giving workers the information they deserve about the specific pesticides used in their line of work and potential exposure to their families.
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Ohio constituents Myra Vargas and her father Mario walk to their next meeting at the Hart Senate Office Building. A growing number of Americans recognize the hazards of toxic chemicals and have reduced consumption of produce grown with pesticides to protect their health. But while 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.
Meanwhile, California constituents Paula Placencia (left) and Mily Treviño-Sauceda (middle) attend a meeting in the office of their congressional representative in the Longworth House Office Building.
Now retired from the fields, Treviño-Sauceda founded the California women's farmworker group, Líderes Campesinas, and the National Farmworker Women's Alliance (also known as Alianza Nacional de Campesinas).
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Ramona Felix, Placencia and Treviño-Sauceda (from left) share their stories during the meeting.
Short-term effects of pesticide exposures include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems, and even death. Cumulative long-term exposures can increase the risk of serious chronic health problems such as cancer, birth defects, neurological impairments and Parkinson's disease for farmworkers, their families, and their children.
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In a hallway of the Longworth House Office Building, Placencia, Treviño-Sauceda and Elizabeth Cordero (from left) reflect on their meeting.
"If policymakers truly listened to the stories of what is going on, laws would change," said Treviño-Sauceda. She believes stricter regulations and more thorough inspections are needed, as well as comprehensive and visible signs in the fields in both Spanish and English to explain pesticide exposure to farmworkers.
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"Workers don't know their rights," says Treviño-Sauceda. She recalled an incident when a plane doused a citrus farm—and the people working on it—with pesticides. "Everyone just started suffocating. I tried to run away but couldn't see or breathe. Everyone was covered with white dust, and their eyes were itchy and watering."
A pregnant woman had to be rushed to the hospital. While the baby survived, the mother did not. That day led to Treviño-Sauceda's involvement in the farmworker justice movement.
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In the Rayburn House Building, Florida constituents Miguel Zelaya, his daughter Selena Zelaya and Ofelia Aguilar (from right) speak about their concerns during a meeting with their representative's office.
In Florida, there are only about 40 inspectors assigned to ensure that the approximately 40,000 agricultural operations in the state are complying with legal requirements and keeping the estimated 290,000 farmworkers in the state safe.
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Zelaya, his daughter Selena, and Aguilar, are joined by Virginia Ruiz of Farmworker Justice in a meeting at the Rayburn House Building.
The federal government estimates that there are 10,000–20,000 acute pesticide poisonings among workers in the agricultural industry every year. "There are costs to poisoning communities and individuals," Ruiz says. "Farmworkers are not machines … Douse them with chemicals and they are going to get sick."
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Miguel's wife, Lemus de Zelaya [not pictured], worked in Florida's agricultural fields when she was pregnant with one of her children. Her child was born with asthma, struggled with it in school and was diagnosed with learning disabilities.
The family doctor said these problems were caused by pesticide exposure—but he suggested she change jobs rather than speak out.
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Selena and her father Miguel at the Rayburn House Building. Miguel now takes it upon himself to wash his hands after coming in contact with pesticides and refuses to work in fields that have just been sprayed. He risks getting fired for those actions, but he says he is more concerned with his health.
Selena worries about her parents possibly getting cancer or other diseases. "I don't want them coming home sick just because the owners don't take precautions for their safety," she said.
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Back in the Hart Senate Office Building, New York constituents Lidia Franco (left) and Alina Diaz take a photo with a senator's aide.
Franco holds a bag made by the child of a farmworker. The bag, embroidered with the words "Don't kill my family please", is adorned with skulls.
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Earthjustice Legislative Representative Andrea Delgado (middle) speaks with Earthjustice Press Secretary Raviya Ismail and intern Allie Eisen in the Hart Senate Office Building, as Franco and Diaz share a relaxed moment following their meeting with their senator's office.
Diaz lives in Ontario, NY, where a large migrant population works on apple orchards and other farms. As a social worker, Diaz worked with farmworkers who spoke of the exploitation and abuse they suffer while laboring on farms and fields.
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Alina Diaz, vice president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, stands in the Hart Senate Office Building, after a long day of meetings.
"The agriculture industry in this country is made possible because of human beings," says Diaz. "And we have our limits.