Fields of Poison: While Farmworkers Are Sickened by Pesticides, Industry Writes the Rules

By Clarren, Rebecca | The Nation, December 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

Fields of Poison: While Farmworkers Are Sickened by Pesticides, Industry Writes the Rules


Clarren, Rebecca, The Nation


Sunnyside, Washington Each summer as the grapes clinging to their vines turn the purple of a deep bruise, Juan Rios feels like he is being poisoned. His head aches, he feels dizzy and nauseous, and his nose won't stop running. A farmworker who moved to this agricultural valley from Mexico, Rios sprays pesticides at a winery from 3 am to 3:30 pm, five days a week. The pesticides protect the grapes from insects, but Rios suspects that these chemicals are making him sick.

"I remember the first time I worked with the pesticides, I was wearing a full mask while we were spraying, but my nose, it wouldn't stop bleeding. I was worried," says Rios, 39, sitting beneath a portrait of Cesar Chavez and a Mexican flag that hang proudly here in the United Farm Workers union local. "I went to the doctor but he didn't do anything; he just told me to stop working with the pesticides."

For a while he worked in the fields picking instead, but he soon returned to his old job. As a pesticide handler at a unionized winery, Rios, the father of two young girls, makes $10 an hour, $3 more than the average Washington farmworker who picks asparagus or thins apples. Plus, he says with a shrug, as long as he works in agriculture, he is exposed to the chemicals. "I know that the only way things will change is if I stop working in the fields," says Rios, "but agriculture is a huge force here--there really are no other options." Rios is not alone. As many as 300,000 farmworkers are injured annually by pesticides, and of these as many as 1,000 die, according to the most recent available estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While relatively little has been done to study the long-term effects of pesticides, the research that does exist suggests that farmworkers and their children are vulnerable to a painful array of illnesses. California farmworkers have elevated levels of leukemia and stomach, uterine and brain cancer, according to a study published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2001. Four-to-five-year-old children in Mexico who were exposed to pesticides suffer giant lags in development--they had more trouble catching a ball, drawing pictures of people or performing simple tasks involving memory and neuromuscular skills, according to research by Elizabeth Guillette, now a University of Florida anthropologist. Other studies link pesticide exposure to infertility, neurological disorders and birth defects.

But most farmworkers have few options for other employment. The vast majority are recent, non-English speaking immigrants. Since more than half are undocumented, and a slim slice are unionized, relatively few complain to state or federal agencies for fear of losing their job or being deported, according to a 2000 General Accounting Office report. Furthermore, many such workers are more concerned with such immediate problems as finding adequate housing, feeding their families and providing health insurance and education for their children.

Even if they were speaking up about pesticide exposure, fighting for protection is an uphill battle. In 1939 there were thirty-two pesticide products registered in the United States; there are now more than 20,000, and farmers use an estimated 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides annually. This industry is big business with large political clout: Agricultural chemical companies made more than $1.6 million in campaign contributions in 2001-02. The average farmworker made $8,750 in 1999-2000.

This disparity of wealth and power helps explain why the federal government has long ignored the plight of farmworkers, creating what has been called one of the more shameful environmental-health stories in this country's history. "Despite the fact that farmworkers do extremely hard work and conduct utterly essential tasks, they are the most ignored, exploited and vulnerable population in this country. Their health needs are entirely subordinated by the government's need to make money for big companies," says Shelley Davis, co-executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit. …

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