A Big Burden to Bear: Farmworkers’ Struggle with Obesity

(Environmental Factors) By Doris Sempasa, Health & Safety Programs Intern

 Article: Are Chemicals Making Us Fat?

 Farmworkers in the U.S. are afflicted with obesity at alarming rates, sustaining many health complications, including diabetes and heart disease. For farmworkers, as is the case for many low-income, at-risk populations, obesity is not easily explained by overeating and lack of exercise. Environmental factors, specifically chemicals found in pesticides, and extreme rural poverty both influence why farmworkers’ waistlines are growing, and why it is so difficult to stop the obesity epidemic. This first blog entry looks at the tiny, invisible particles that are making America’s farmworkers sick.

The obesity debate in the U.S. has mostly focused on the poor eating habits and lack of physical exercise among our country’s ever-growing population. As the waistlines of the average U.S. citizen have expanded, so has the focus on American food culture. With a shift towards fast, convenient foods and cheaply subsidized mega-crops like corn, it comes as no surprise that the epidemic of obesity is one of the biggest public health concerns we currently face. New research suggests this obesity problem may not only be the result of the way we eat, but also the chemicals used in the production of our food.

A new word has recently entered the vocabulary of scientists in the U.S.: obesogens.  Obesogens are a new type of environmental hormone, or endocrine disruptor that has been shown to cause damage to vital organs such as the pancreas, thyroid, testes, and ovaries. Exposure to obesogens during development can lead to obesity, infertility, and other sexual and reproductive disorders. However, what is most interesting about this new type of health villain is that like many other environmental hormones, obesogens are found in numerous amounts of man-made chemicals including pesticides and certain plastic products.

A study conducted by the American Diabetes Association in 2006 found a relationship between persistent organic pollutants (POPs, often found in pesticides) and rates of diabetes among participating adults Even after controlling for factors such as race and ethnicity, age, Body Mass Index (BMI), and waist circumferences, the effects of POP exposure was still significantly associated with diabetes, which is closely linked to rates of obesity. Furthermore, another study showed pesticide applicators, or the individuals who apply pesticides to crops, reported exposure to certain insecticides and herbicides (such as those containing organochlorines and organophosphates) and were also at increased risk for diabetes.

This research not only draws attention to the harmful effects of environmental hormones, such as obesogens, in the products we consume, it also sheds light on populations most vulnerable to these particular risks of chemical exposure. The reality is that far too many U.S. farms rely on heavy-handed pesticide use to produce massive amounts of food at a low cost. Therefore, it is likely individuals in farm work are at the greatest risk for exposure to obesogens and other endocrine disruptors. This raises significant health concerns not only for farmworkers who apply or are otherwise in contact with pesticides, but for their families as well. Also, since many farmworkers have limited access to health care options, the ways to mitigate issues surrounding obesity and diabetes are often hard to overcome.

What is important about this research is that it brings greater depth of information to the conversation surrounding obesity, as well as the serious health effects of pesticide exposure. Though more research is still needed in order to prove a definite association between pesticides and the rates of obesity today, this information is substantial, revealing the possible harmful health effects caused by many common chemicals. With more information and research in the area of pesticide safety, the focus shifts to deeper issues surrounding our culture of food and how it is produced. Rather than focusing solely on lack of physical activity and poor eating habits as an approach to the problem of obesity, we should more closely examine the effects of pesticide exposure and how these chemicals affect the health of farmworkers and non-farmworkers alike. For more information on farmworkers and food, check out the June edition of Salud.

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