Invisible Farm Workers

Last Wednesday, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB 104, a California bill that would allow farm workers to unionize. This bill would help increase farm worker safety, and would be an important measure in the face of recent heat-related deaths and the continuing negative impact of pesticides and herbicides on farm worker health.

July is a great time for produce in California, but it’s not until September, the Month of Tomatoes, when evidence of California’s agricultural weight is truly ubiquitous. In September, when I drive the two hours from my field site where I conduct dissertation research to my apartment, I nearly always spot at least one truck filled with tomatoes. For someone who loves them, it’s quite a sight to behold: a gray, open-topped truck filled to overflowing with red, ripe, round tomatoes. Sometimes, when there’s a sharp turn in the highway or there’s a particularly abrupt exit ramp, the road itself will be littered with tomatoes that have fallen from the truck.

When I’m driving, I don’t know how the tomatoes I am looking at are farmed or where they come from. In my town, those are two absolutely crucial pieces of information ““ the public concern about the effects of pesticides and herbicides on our (the consumer’s) health and the health of our environment demands that organic is king. While handy lists that enumerate which foods must (MUST!) be bought organic litter the stores, there’s little attention paid to another cost of agrochemicals ““ their effects on the health of the farm workers.

Farm workers make up 1% of the United States’s wages and salary workers, and the demographics paint a unique picture: 84% of farm workers are male, and 71% of farm workers are foreign-born. While accurate information about the number of undocumented immigrants working as farm workers is difficult to come by, a recent brief released by the United States Department of Agriculture found that in 2009, 48% of farm workers were undocumented. Farm workers are often undocumented, predominantly Hispanic, and consistently overlooked.

If you had wanted to hear anything about the effects of pesticides and herbicides on the health of farm workers, you’d have to leave the grocery store, walk through downtown, enter the college campus, and work your way up to the third floor of a charming, old building. If you were lucky, it would be the day that Dr. Tyrone Hayes, a professor and researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, was visiting to speak to a group of graduate student researchers about his work on atrazine, a common herbicide, and its effects on frogs. I was lucky.

Dr. Hayes is an engaging speaker. His long hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and even in a suit, his friendly, open demeanor invites the audience to interact with him and to take part in his science. The horror of atrazine’s story grows as he talks ““ from atrazine’s ability to chemically castrate frogs, to its documented health effects in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

Even humans are affected, with atrazine exposure linked to increased incidences of breast and prostate cancer, as well as decreases in fertility. As Dr. Hayes speaks, he hammers home the point that the use of these herbicides, hits the most vulnerable populations to hardest ““ people of color, undocumented migrants, and the poor working class are more likely to find farm work and face exposure to pesticides.  (Note: for more information about Dr. Tyrone Hayes and his research, check out his bio at PBS and their program, Troubled Waters.)

The future of atrazine is still up in the air, but there’s been movement on other common chemicals: in June of last year, another chemical, this time endosulfan, a common pesticide, was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency. This chemical bioaccumulates, which means that the chemical can get stored in the bodies of animals that eat it or are exposed to it. Bioaccumulation is a big problem because it means that the effects of the chemical are felt throughout the food chain, affecting not just the plants and animals that are directly exposed to the chemicals, but also all the animals that consume them.  It spreads like a computer virus, permeating an entire ecological system.

And like atrazine, endosulfan can cause serious human health problems, from impaired kidney and liver function, to birth defects, to decreased fertility. Despite the regulations already in place, farm workers were exposed to much more endosulfan than previously expected and they were feeling the health effects from that exposure. It is due to this overexposure and the subsequent health impacts that endosulfan has been banned in the United States.

There are still many chemicals being used in agriculture today, some of which, like atrazine, have strong scientific evidence linking them to human health problems. Ecologists, agricultural scientists, and toxicologists are working to understand the role of pesticides and herbicides on determining human and environmental health, but research is a slow process. For the time being, farm workers continue to face disproportionately high health risks, with little recourse.

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