Protect our planet, farmworkers and families

Each Earth Day we are inundated by advertising and other pronouncements with ways to help protect our planet. But one step – curbing the use of toxic and harmful pesticides in agriculture – would help protect the environment, farmworkers and our families.

The dangers that pesticides present to the environment are well-documented and widely discussed. Outrage and concern has grown over the depletion of bee populations due to pesticide spray. In big agribusiness states like Florida and California the chemicals endanger dozens of fish and bird species.

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But the careless use of these toxic chemicals like chlorpyrifos and phosmet also has dangerous effects on our food system – for both farmworkers and consumers. 

Pesticide exposure causes farmworkers to suffer more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other workforce in the country, including manufacturing. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that as many as 20,000 workers are affected annually. The real number is likely much higher, as many workers have no access to medical attention. Many farmworkers don’t receive adequate training about pesticide hazards, so they might not even realize their symptoms are due to pesticide exposure.  And farmworkers who lack legal work authorization – the majority are undocumented immigrants -- are less likely to report violations of workplace safety for fear of losing their jobs or being deported.

Consequences of pesticide exposure range from stinging eyes, rashes and  blisters to blindness, nausea, dizziness, headaches, coma and even death.  Infertility, neurological disorders and cancer are also common.  Farmworkers’ family members sometimes are similarly affected.  Pesticide exposure is credited with causing birth defects, developmental delays, leukemia and brain cancer among farmworker children. Many of these children also attend schools and live in homes that are dangerously close to fields using these chemicals.

The dangers don’t stop in the fields. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found disturbing levels of pesticide exposure in consumers. In their 2013 study, 93 percent of all Americans tested were rated positive for metabolites of chlorpyrifos, banned in households due to the danger posed to children, yet still permitted for agricultural use. In the same study, 99% tested positive for DDT degradants, a pesticide that has not been used in nearly 40 years, primarily because of its well-known harms.

As we look for solutions to environmental dangers this Earth Day, it is clear that progress towards curbing the risks of pesticides is achievable. For example, EPA is currently considering changes to the Worker Protection Standard (WPS), the federal regulation designed to protect farmworkers from risks like pesticide exposure.

Our planet and the nation’s farmworkers deserve to be protected from the deadly nature of pesticides. All consumers deserve to know what is in their food and whether it is safe.

To learn more about the harmful effects of pesticides, read Exposed and Ignored: How Pesticides are Endangering Our Nation’s Farmworkers or visit www.farmworkerjustice.org.

Goldstein is president of Farmworker Justice, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization in Washington, D.C. that works to improve living and working conditions for migrant and seasonal farmworkers.

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