Dangerous Exposure: Farmworker Children and Pesticides

It has been almost a year since the groundbreaking report from the President’s Panel on Cancer was released, highlighting environmental causes of cancer.  Of particular interest to us was the chapter on agricultural chemicals and the attention given specifically to farmworkers. The findings in the report pointed an accusatory finger toward agricultural pesticides and exposures to agricultural workers.  AFOP’s Health & Safety team was particularly concerned about the implications for farmworker children and their exposure to these environmental toxins.

Farmworker children are exposed to dangerous pesticides in a number of ways.  They may work in the fields with their parents and experience dermal contact with pesticide residues on the plants, or they may even be sprayed directly from aerial applications (theoretically this is not supposed to happen, but in reality, it does happen—nearly every farmworker we’ve ever interviewed has told us stories of being sprayed by planes or helicopters).  Farmworker children may be exposed by eating the fruits or vegetables right off the vine as they work.  And, even if they don’t work in the fields, they may be exposed when their parents return from work with residues on their clothing, shoes, work tools, lunch coolers, etc.  The residues transfer to the children directly when they hug their parents or play with their tools or clothing.  Residue is also transferred to the floor, furniture, and even onto the children’s toys.  It is impossible for farmworker children to escape this environmental exposure.

In a ten-month immersion in evidence-based findings on pesticide exposures, farmworker children and various illnesses, including cancer, the AFOP Health & Safety team reviewed primary scientific research published in professional medical and public health journals.  The weight of evidence described in our report, Dangerous Exposure: Farmworker Children and Pesticides, is overwhelming, if not conclusive. We examined birth defects, neurological and behavior disorders, respiratory disease, as well as leukemia and other childhood cancers and their connections to pesticides.   It is clear that the risk is high for farmworker children whose lives are surrounded by dangerous agricultural toxins.

We enriched our understanding of the issues of pesticide exposure to children by conducting focus groups and interviews with farmworker parents around the country.  The parents told us stories of exposure, of having to make choices they know are not healthy for their children, of their fears for their families, and of hope that one day things will change.  As we celebrate National Farmworker Awareness Week and César Chávez Day, we should be reminded that in the dinner we eat there are a great number of sacrifices, dignity of hard work, and eternal hope in that meal.

The Fields, Volume 1, 2011 / Dangerous Exposure: Farmworker Children and Pesticides will be released on March 31, 2011 and will be available for download on the AFOP website at www.afop.org. A hard copy can also be obtained by sending a request via email to Valentina Stackl at stackl@afop.org

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