Increased Risk of Cancers among Farmworkers

In honor of National Farmworker Awareness Week, I thought it prudent to examine one particularly significant health issue plaguing the farmworker community: Cancer. A variety of cancers have been associated with work in agriculture for decades. Prostate cancer, for example, has been linked to agricultural workers, especially those handling pesticides such as heptachlor and lindane. Breast cancer increased with heavy use of 2,4-D (a phenoxy acetic acid herbicide) and chlordane (a now banned organochlorine insecticide previously used on citrus and corn). Farmworkers also suffer from disproportionate rates of stomach cancer, leukemia, uterine cervix, endometrial cancer, and even skin cancer. A study conducted by the Cancer Registry of California in 2002 showed that farmworkers were more likely to develop certain types of leukemia by 59%, stomach cancer by 69%, cervical cancer by 63%, and uterine cancer by 68% when compared to the general Latino population in California. On top of that, farmworker’s cancer survival rates are extremely poor overall, largely due to lack of health insurance and regular doctor’s visits.

Non-Hodkin’s Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, which has been associated with farming in dozens of studies, is also on the rise in the general population. “The incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma has almost doubled since 1970. Very few cancers are on the increase to that extent,” according to Dr. Roy Williams, of Pinnacle Health Medical Oncology Associates in Harrisburg. The fact that Non-Hodkin’s Lymphoma is increasing in the general population is concerning, yet it has been a big problem in the agricultural community for a long time. When a team of scientists at the Medical College of Ohio looked at studies published in the last 15 years, they concluded that farmers have an elevated risk of the cancer non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma likely due to their exposure to infectious microorganisms, herbicides, and insecticides. Because of lack of data about farmworkers, data about farmers is often used in place, since both groups are likely exposed to the same pesticides.
Similar to many of the issues farmworkers face, cancer is a multidimensional causal web: the culprit could be the many pesticides they are exposed to, lack of access to nutritious foods, stress, lack of doctor’s visits, exposure to environmental toxins besides pesticides, or the combination of all of these factors. In fact, studies suggested an increased risk of cancer among children and adults associated with exposure to many pesticides at once. Cancer cannot be blamed on a single cause, rather it is the result of a complex process and multiple exposures.

Farmworkers carry so many burdens, including increased risk of cancer. The good news is that the risk of many of the types of cancers can be mitigated. Pesticide safety, regular screening procedures, healthy diets, and regular doctor’s visits could potentially prevent many of these cancers. General education about these cancers and their symptoms is crucial to prevent unnecessary deaths in the farmworker community. Please visit our page on the AFOP website for more information on farmworker health and safety.

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