Pesticides put farmworkers at risk

Published Jan. 16, 2012

We hear a lot about farmworkers' low wages, their poor housing and the anti-immigrant movement that has frightened many. But we rarely hear about another serious problem farmworkers face: widespread exposure to pesticides on the job.

Jeannie Economos, the pesticide coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida in Apopka, sees this problem firsthand every day. She told me about a Mexican woman who walked into the association's office one recent afternoon. Her entire face was swollen, her eyes almost shut. The woman was certain she had been exposed to pesticides in the plant nursery where she worked.

She said a doctor had prescribed a steroid-based cream for her face, but she did not want to use a steroid for what she believed was pesticide exposure. Economos, who has handled such cases for 11 years, asked the woman to file an official complaint about the incident with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The woman did not file the complaint because she was afraid of being labeled a troublemaker and losing her job even though she was a legal U.S. resident. Instead, she bought an over-the-counter cream that gave some relief. She returned to work without receiving proper medical treatment.

Her predicament is all too familiar to farmworker advocates in Florida, which has a year-round average of 300,000 agricultural workers.

"There are significant and very disturbing problems related to farmworkers and pesticide exposure," Economos said. "One problem is that the current harsh and ugly anti-immigrant sentiment around the country and the severe anti-immigrant laws recently enacted in Georgia and Alabama have made farmworkers more afraid than ever to come forward when there are violations of regulations in the workplace and/or when they are experiencing symptoms of pesticide exposure."

Economos said Florida's heavy use of certain toxic chemicals puts farmworkers at high risk of exposure. The state's hot and humid climate and the long nine-month growing season make working conditions in the fields and greenhouses especially dangerous. Several studies have linked specific pesticides to thyroid cancer, ADHD in children and birth defects.

In 2002 and 2003, for example, three children of farmworkers were born with severe birth defects in Immokalee. The births occurred about six weeks apart and in the same area. Evidence showed the parents had been exposed to newly sprayed pesticides. Plant City-based Ag-Mart, the employer involved, settled out of court with the couple whose baby was born with no limbs. The amount was said to be in the millions. Few such dramatic cases have been in the news since, but the dangers have not gone away.

Florida's lax enforcement of federal pesticide regulations greatly concerns farmworker advocates. "By last count, there were over 40,000 agricultural operations in Florida and only 40 inspectors statewide to monitor and enforce regulations on all the agricultural operations in the state," Economos said. "More inspectors are needed to do better monitoring, inspection and enforcement. Even on farms where there is enforcement when violations are found, the penalty is often just a warning."

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Another problem is that few laborers are trained to understand the effects of the pesticides in their workplaces. The major reason: Farmworkers are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act. And because Florida is a right-to-work state, farmworkers have difficulty forming unions to protect their interests. As such, they lack a legal right to know which pesticides they come in contact with.

"The Worker Protection Standards require that workers receive a pesticide training every five years," Economos said. "We feel that workers should be trained every year to impress upon them the seriousness of the conditions in which they work. We have had workers tell us that a crew leader will ask them to sign or initial a paper to show that they had received the training without actually giving the training to them."

Growers also are required to train workers within the first five days of beginning the job. This is a dangerous practice, because laborers can be on the job for up to five days before learning how to protect themselves from pesticide exposure, Economos said. Workers should be trained before ever going into fields or greenhouses.

Advocates argue that because farmworkers do not have political and economic clout in statehouses and the nation's capital, they remain invisible in spite of the essential work they do – work that no one else will do.

"Unless you are able to be totally self-sufficient and grow your own food, you are probably dependent on farmworkers for the food you eat," Economos said. "How many people realize that? Farmworkers need to be treated like the skilled workers they are, and they deserve the same rights and protections the rest of us take for granted."