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Pesticides: The Workplace Hazard The EPA Is Ignoring

Crop Duster

An aerial view of a red and white cropduster spraying chemicals on fields of vibrant, green plants.

BRIAN BROWN

Mily Treviño-Sauceda recalls a day decades ago that still reduces her to tears. While working on a citrus farm in Blythe, California, a plane flew overhead and doused the field—and the people working on it — with pesticides.

"I was up on the ladder when I heard a plane fly over," said Treviño-Sauceda, now 55. "Then 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."

Thankfully, Treviño-Sauceda and her brothers and father who also worked in the fields had no serious short-term health problems, but not everyone remained unscathed. She remembers a pregnant woman who had to be rushed to the hospital to deliver her baby. While the baby survived, the mother did not.

That day is imprinted in Treviño-Sauceda's mind and led to her involvement in the farmworker justice movement. Now retired from the fields, Treviño-Sauceda founded a women's farmworker group in California called Líderes Campesinas and the National Farmworker Women's Alliance, also called Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.

Members of Alianza as well as other allies and farmworkers were in Washington, D.C. on July 15–16, 2013 to call on Congress to strengthen and finalize a federal safeguard called the Worker Protection Standard and in turn, implement stronger protections for farmworkers from hazardous pesticides.

Farmworkers pick strawberries in Wayne County, NY.
Farmworkers pick strawberries in Wayne County, NY.
COURTESY OF ALINA DIAZ / ALIANZA NACIONAL DE CAMPESINAS

An estimated 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States. Alarmingly, while our nation's 1–2 million farmworkers face the highest threat from the health impacts of these chemicals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not revised the Worker Protection Standard in over 20 years.

The farmworkers and advocates are calling for the EPA 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. They're also asking the EPA to require safety precautions, protective equipment that would limit farmworkers' contact with pesticides, and medical monitoring of workers who handle neurotoxic pesticides.

The federal government estimates that there are 10,000–20,000 acute pesticide poisonings among workers in the agricultural industry annually. 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.

Representative Drawings of a Person By Unaffected and Affected Same-Aged Children

AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL APPROACH TO THE EVALUATION OF PRESCHOOL CHILDREN EXPOSED TO PESTICIDES

Edward Zuroweste, chief medical officer for Migrant Clinicians Network, an organization that provides support to physicians and other health professionals who provide care to farmworkers and other migrant laborers, spent more than 20 years as a doctor treating farmworkers who worked on apple orchards in rural Pennsylvania.

Zuroweste said he frequently treated farmworkers and their families who complained of bad headaches, nausea, and vomiting as a result of pesticides exposure. Oftentimes, he said, these symptoms were misdiagnosed as the flu or stress headaches.

"It's a high-risk occupation to work among chemicals on a daily basis," Zuroweste said. "We're still putting billions of pounds of very dangerous chemicals on fields and orchards. Many of these pesticides have been proven to be carcinogenic and have been proven to cause birth defects."

Zuroweste said the most dangerous pesticides should be pulled off the market and at the very least, farmworkers should be educated about what pesticides they are working with and the associated health risks, and they should be given equipment that minimizes their exposure.

Mily Treviño-Sauceda, working on a California farm in a photo from the early 1980s
Mily Treviño-Sauceda, working on a California farm in a photo from the early 1980s. Today, she is president and founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.
COURTESY OF MILY TREVIÑO-SAUCEDA

"It's important to highlight the need to update the EPA Worker Protection Standard and for lawmakers to be much more aligned with what really needs to be done to protect workers," Zuroweste said. "It's time to do it." 

Treviño-Sauceda said while there are inspectors who come to check on the fields, oftentimes owners are given advance tip-offs so they can hide bad practices on the day of inspection. 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.

"Workers don't know their rights," said Treviño-Sauceda.

Virginia Ruiz, who is director of occupational and environmental health for Farmworker Justice, said it's not just the lack of information available to farmworkers that is a problem.

"There are costs to poisoning communities and individuals," Ruiz said. "Farmworkers are not machines … Douse them with chemicals and they are going to get sick."

Alina Diaz is vice president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas and lives in Ontario, New York, where a large migrant population works on apple orchards and other farms. As a social worker, Diaz has worked with farmworkers who speak of the exploitation and abuse they suffer while laboring on farms and fields.

One woman detailed to Diaz an incident in which, after toxic pesticides were sprayed on a cleared field nearby, a cloud of the pesticides drifted to an adjacent field covering the woman and her fellow farmworkers with harmful chemicals. Even though they had been exposed to toxic pesticides, the field manager ordered them to continue working. The woman couldn't breathe. She told Diaz: "I don't care if I lose my job; I'm not going to die here like a roach. I am a human being, not an insect."

Incidents like these, involving what is known as "pesticide drift," are commonplace in farms and fields across the country, adding yet another layer of illness and threat to farmworkers whose rights are already misunderstood and often denied.

"The agriculture industry in this country is made possible because of human beings," said Diaz. "And we have our limits." 

FROM OUR BLOG

Mother, Farmworker To EPA: Protect Other Families From Suffering

Miguel Zelaya, Reina Lemus de Zelaya and their daughter Selena Zelaya. Miguel and Reina are farmworkers in Florida.

ALEX SAUNDERS / FARMWORKER ASSOCIATION OF FLORIDA

Reina Lemus de Zelaya's daughter was born with asthma and has been 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.

Today, Lemus de Zelaya and her family work toward stronger protections for farmworkers from hazardous pesticides.

Read Their Story »

"We're still putting billions of pounds of very dangerous chemicals on fields and orchards. Many of these pesticides have been proven to be carcinogenic and have been proven to cause birth defects."

Edward Zuroweste
Chief Medical Officer, Migrant Clinicians Network