Voices from the Field
The morning last June began much like hundreds of other mornings had in the grape vineyard of California’s Central Valley for Rosa Sánchez. There was the slowly rising heat, the crisp rustle of leaves, the snatches of conversation as people bent to their work. The grapes grew so thick and tall where Rosa was working that she couldn’t see beyond the row where she was pruning. She had no warning before the wave of pesticides hit.
Suddenly, her throat tightened, her head started pounding, and there was a bitter taste in her mouth. Moments later, she says, she felt like someone had slugged her in the stomach and she vomited. All around her, other farm workers were doing the same.
Investigators would later report that someone in a peach orchard just to the south of the vineyard was spraying a combination of Onager Optek, which kills mites; an insecticide called Reaper Clearform; and Narrow Range 415 Spray Oil, another insecticide.
Authorities say 52 people were exposed and six were taken to the hospital, one of whom was kept overnight for shortness of breath. The orchard company has been fined and is appealing. Rogelina says the current rules governing pesticide use failed to protect her that day.
After the exposure last June, Rosa said she was examined and released from the hospital. Nine months later, she says her mouth is always dry, her hands are often numb, and she has a nagging dry cough. She says her doctor hasn’t been able to explain her symptoms 1.
Names have been changed.
The use of pesticides has been a long-time health risk for farm workers. Farm workers are twice as likely to die from pesticide poisoning than workers in other occupations 2. Farm workers are exposed to these toxins both directly and indirectly. Directly, farm workers can be sprayed while picking crops. Farm workers can also be made to re-enter fields prematurely after the fields have been sprayed. Indirectly, farm workers are exposed by handling pesticide containers (warning labels of which are still not required to be written in Spanish in addition to English), having skin contact with pesticide residue and breathing in “pesticide drifts” from neighboring fields like Rosa’s experience. Inadequate training, protective gear, posting of fields that have been sprayed put farm workers both at immediate risk as well as long-term harm from pesticides.
Farm workers families can also be harmed by these toxins. Farm workers and their families are exposed to pesticides in their homes as many live nearby fields that have been sprayed. Farm workers can also bring the poisonous pesticides home with them on their clothes, shoes and bodies. Persistent pesticide exposure has been associated with cancer, depression, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and reproductive issues. The lack of access to health care exacerbates the health risks farm workers face.
Climate change is expanding pesticide use and the harm it causes. As the temperature rises pests and weeds multiply requiring more heavy use of pesticides. Also rising temperatures cause the pesticides to evaporate more quickly making additional application required to achieve the same effect. Warmer temperatures can also make some of the pesticides even more toxic. For example, the widely used organophosphate pesticide have been shown to increase the rate of chemical transformation into more toxic compounds 3.
Heat stress is a compounding factor for farm workers who are exposed to pesticides. Heat stress makes workers more susceptible to pesticides and other toxins. Farm workers can protect themselves from pesticide exposure by using protective clothing but may be more vulnerable to heat stress. The essential protective gear that keeps farm workers safe from pesticides can increase the “feels like” temperature by up to 27℉ 4.
Farm workers work hard in the fields to support themselves and their families as well as to put food on our plates and support our billion-dollar agricultural industry. Farm workers deserve stronger workplace protections, such as protection from pesticides.
Farm workers and environmental justice organizations are leading campaigns to document cases of pesticide exposure, ban the use of some of the most dangerous pesticides that are actively used in this country, and educate others about the danger of pesticide exposure and its effects on farm worker communities.
Support “Protect Children, Farmers and Farmworkers from Nerve Agent Pesticides Act of 2019” S.921. This bill specifically addresses chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin especially dangerous to children.
Download the Pesticides Info Sheet.
See Farm Workers and the Envrionment: A Curriculum (pdf) Session 4: Pesticides/Herbicides on page 17.
Read Farmworker Justice’s “Exposed and Ignored: How pesticides are endangering our nation’s farmworkers”
Watch Freedom to Breathe: The Invisible Ones
Read more about Farm Workers and the Environment
Read more about Health and Safety issues affecting farm workers.
- Richard, Chris (April 22, 2020). “Change to Federal Rule Could Expose More Farmworkers to Pesticides”. Civil Eats. Retrieved July 10, 2020.
- Union of Concerned Scientists (November 2019). “Farmworkers at Risk: The growing Dangers of Pesticides and Heat”. Union of Concerned Scientists. Retrieved July 10, 2020.