Pesticides and Farm Worker Safety

by Michelle Nay, Switzerland, ELP 2014
Written on July 20, 2014.
Today 35-40% of the harvest is lost due to pests. One dollar spent on pesticides will save approximately four dollars of crops. These facts make it evident how profitable investing in pesticides is. However, pesticides have an impact on the health of farmworkers and their families, who are highly exposed to these toxins.

The CHAMACOS project, on which our lecturer Asa Bradman is working, aims at assessing the health of mothers and children of Salinas, one of California's main agriculture production areas. They are also working towards increasing awareness among farmworkers for the effect of pesticides on health. The goal is to reduce exposure of farm workers and the take home exposure.

Children suffer most from exposure to pesticides because they eat, drink and breathe more per kg body weight. Further, they have lower enzyme levels to break down toxic compounds, they spend the most of the time crawling and are fed by breast milk that can be contaminated by metabolites of pesticides. All of this above has the effect that children of farm workers or located close to agricultural production areas show higher percentage of abnormal neonatal reflexes, decreased mental development and various other health issues.

Substances covering crops such as pesticides easily stick to exposed body parts or clothes, as we found out through an in class experiment where we circulated chalk covered potatoes and apples. After everyone observed the given object we checked with UV light how much of the substance remained on our skin through the brief contact. In a farm, the dermal and take-home exposure of pesticides can be very high, but there are easy ways to lower exposures such as proper hand washing, wearing gloves, contaminated clothes storage at work and increased waiting time before workers can go into the field after spraying.

Doctor Dia Mountaga, one of the ELP participants, worked on a project on health impacts of pesticide use in Senegal. The problem there is that most farmers are not trained on how to use pesticides. They usually don’t wear protective clothes and use too much pesticide, so much so that it drains off to the river. The water of the river is then used for drinking, bathing, doing laundry and for irrigation.

There are no guidelines on pesticide use and some substances that are prohibited in other countries can be available through the informal market. Inappropriate labeling or storage of pesticides can sometimes lead to confusion. For example, it can happen that pesticides are stored in the reach of children, or bottles of pesticides are mistaken for water bottles. Further, the health workers are usually not trained to deal with toxicological emergencies.

To make pesticide use safer, education is essential. There are various ways to reduce exposure, but another way to tackle the problem of exposure would be to minimize pesticide use in the field. This could be achieved through a more diverse farming system so that specialized pests cannot spread well or through integrated pest management. This lowers the expenses for pesticides and more importantly, increases the health of farm workers and their families.