Safe Exposure? Perceptions of Health Risks
from Agricultural Chemicals among
Barbara Herr Harthorn
Farmwork is arguably the most hazardous and lowest paying occupation in the country, largely performed by approximately four million migratory and seasonal workers, of whom over a quarter reside and work in California (Villarejo et al. 2000). It has a death rate five times the average for all industries, attributed to the long work hours, direct work with heavy machinery, and chemical exposures (National Safety Council 1999). In spite of increasing public concern in the United States about the hazards and safety of agricultural chemicals, the production and application of chemicals has increased exponentially in the past decade, directly exposing agricultural workers to a known health hazard. A recent report by the U.S. Government and General Accounting Office, Pesticides: Improvements Needed to Ensure the Safety of Farmworkers and Their Children (2000), points to the failures of the Worker Protection Standard to limit pesticide exposure by agricultural workers and their families (Taylor 2000).
In this chapter I examine the occupational “risk subjectivities” (Lupton 1999:104) of Mexican-origin farmworker women and men in central coastal California in relation to their exposure to agricultural chemicals. This analysis demonstrates how these Latina/-o immigrant agricultural workers construct
I am most grateful to the farmworkers who gave their time and thoughtful responses for
this research. The UCSB Center for Chicano Studies and the UC MEXUS program pro-
vided multiple grants of support. Susan Stonich was a key collaborator in the first farm-
worker study referenced here. Sarah Rodriguez has contributed in numerous ways to
this project; her dedication and capability have helped make it a success. Jessica Jerome,
Leo Chavez, and Thomas Arcury provided valuable comments on an earlier version of
this chapter. Laury Oaks deserves my special thanks for her insightful comments and
patient attention to this and all the other contributions to the volume.