Female agricultural workers in the United States face pesticide poisoning, heat stroke and other life-threatening working conditions so that Americans may eat fruits and vegetables, according to a report released this week by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP).
Two and a half million people toil in American fields as migrant and seasonal workers, and 24 percent of them are women. Despite their smaller numbers, female farmworkers often face disproportionate burdens, including greater exposure to dangerous pesticides, and the dual responsibilities of performing long hours of backbreaking work in the fields during the day and caring for their families at night.
For their labor, they earn just over $11,000 a year on average, compared to the $16,000 earned by male agricultural workers. Female agricultural workers suffer from a combination of health issues, impoverishment, discrimination and poor nutrition stemming from the lack of healthy food found in rural areas.
Interviews and focus groups conducted by AFOP with farmworker communities in California and Florida revealed that many women suffered complications from pesticides, which are commonly sprayed on farms to keep bugs at bay.
Pesticide exposure can occur through contact with pesticide residue on crops, or when the chemicals drift into areas where farmworkers are living or working, entering the bloodstream through the skin.
Research published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that women made up 39 percent of the workers experiencing acute pesticide poisoning.
“More than anything else, we have problems with the pesticides,” a 32-year old farmworker named Carmela from Immokalee, Florida, testified in the AFOP report. “Sometimes they put us to work right after they’ve sprayed the pesticides. And this is bad for us because when we go in the field and start working with the plants, it gets in our eyes. It makes your head hurt too.”
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than one billion pounds of pesticides are sprayed annually in the U.S., 80 percent of which are used on agricultural fields. This causes between 10,000 and 20,000 cases of pesticide poisoning in farmworker communities each year.
Although farms are required to provide training to prevent pesticide exposure and install sinks and toilets nearby to reduce risk, many of the women interviewed by AFOP have had employers who shirked those responsibilities.
In the small farmworker community of Kettleman City, CA, where workers toil in nearby tomato fields and almond groves, families have seen a soaring rise in birth defects. A 2010 investigation by Mother Jones found that out of 25 births over a 14-month period, five babies were born with cleft palates and other serious birth defects. Three of those babies died.
Kettleman City residents must also contend with city wells that are contaminated with benzene and arsenic. A company called Waste Management Inc. operates a hazardous waste dump three miles from the town, and it accepts more than 300,000 tons of chemical compounds, including asbestos, pesticides, PCBs and more.
The California Environmental Protection Agency investigated whether pesticide exposure may have caused any of the deaths and was unable to prove the link, though the department did find elevated levels of airborne pesticides on several days between 2006 and 2009. The agency continues to monitor the area.
Valentina Stackl is the author of the AFOP report, a former program manager at AFOP, and is currently a project coordinator at Farmworker Justice. She tells TakePart, “The pesticides used on the farms are being tested and OK’ed by the EPA,” she explains. “But because there are so many different pesticides being used as the same time, no conclusive research shows the health effects of using so many of them, over a long period of time.”
“Meanwhile, among our interview participants in California and Florida, pesticide poisoning was very common,” Stackl says. “It’s such a norm for them to get sick from pesticides that it’s almost an everyday thing. ‘Of course we have rashes on our skin, of course we are sick,’ they said, as if that was the norm.”
The AFOP report concludes by recommending policy interventions to protect farmworker communities, including paying workers a living wage and increasing educational and health outreach programs for vulnerable populations.
An alliance of farmworker women from around the country called Alianza Nacional de Campesinas has recently begun meeting with legislators and local leaders to educate them about the health issues women face in the fields.
Consumers, too, can play a role in improving the working conditions of farmworkers by changing perceptions and learning from the hard-working men and women who put food on our plates.
“Your food doesn’t come from the supermarket, your food comes from the hands of 2.5 million people who live in abysmal conditions and are exposed to chemicals all day long, working in the heat and bending over and crouching and crawling on their knees,” Stackl says. “Those are the people who make it so you can eat. We need to tell their stories, have them tell their stories, and make sure there is a space for their stories to be heard.”