Originally published in the Monterey Herald. Access online at http://www.montereyherald.com/article/NF/20160305/NEWS/160309840
For many who work and or live in agricultural communities in California, the ubiquity of pesticides in everyday life perhaps seems normal or natural. This is the case for fumigant pesticides.
Fumigants are the most frequently used pesticides in California. They sterilize the soil of all life forms that live beneath and around the surface. They are applied, sometimes alone and sometimes in cocktail combos before growers plant the crops that dominate our landscapes, that have come to shape our regional cultures and identities — from tomatoes to strawberries, the stuff of ketchup, salsa, jam and aguas frescas. They are often branded as essential to the economy by pesticide manufacturers and grower-shipper companies.
But what (or who) else is essential to agriculture in the Valley? Los jornalero/as agrícolas y sus familias (farmworkers and their families). Tomatoes and strawberries are some of the perks and joys of California agriculture. But what are the hidden health costs of growing these regional staples with heavy reliance on fumigant pesticides? How do they affect los organísmos, the bodies of farmworkers and their families, who are exposed at work, at home, at school and at play?
According to the National Agricultural Worker Survey, farmworkers have a life expectancy of merely 49 years, compared to 78.8 years in the U.S. general population, and upward of 80 years among Latinos in the U.S. in general. How is this happening? Clearly, the so-called Latino Health Paradox — which argues that Latinos live longer despite facing great socioeconomic and health disparities — does not apply to farmworkers.
I am a cultural, medical and environmental anthropologist. I have researched and worked with farmworkers in agricultural communities in Central California who, in response to all my questions about their lives and stories, have been posing really important questions about the effects of pesticides on their health. A recently released UCLA report, “Exposure and Interaction: The Potential Health Impacts of Using Multiple Pesticides,” written by health scientists who are leaders and pioneers in their fields, provides some scientific validation to farmworkers’ concerns.
The 44-page report begins to assess what happens to human and environmental health when fumigant pesticides are applied in chemical mixtures. It concludes that exposure to these mixtures, which are commonly used in strawberry production, for example, increases the possibility of DNA mutations and thus reduces the body’s ability to repair itself. This is very troubling, especially when it concerns farmworkers, as they face a number of occupational, socioeconomic and environmental health disparities.
In my own work I have observed that many farmworkers and their children are dealing not only with multiple exposures to many different kinds of pesticides, but also stress, discrimination and segregation, deportation and family separation, forced displacement, food insecurity, abysmal housing conditions, and other kinds of physical and psychological occupational injuries. These likely also have synergistic effects that exacerbate farmworker health disparities in combination with lifetime chronic pesticide exposure. Other studies demonstrate that exposure starts even before one is born, en la matriz, in the womb.
During my research I met a farmworker couple who had worked in the strawberry fields for over 20 years before their backs wore out and other diseases set in. Between the two of them over the course of less than 10 years, they experienced three kinds of cancers, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, depression, and chronic pain and fatigue. Home health care nurses I’ve met during my research inform me that they travel throughout Central California providing specialized care to babies and young children with severe birth and developmental defects. Men in their 40s and 50s hobble down Main Streets in California agricultural towns using canes and walkers, trembling with neurological deterioration. These and other health disparities are all implicated in the UCLA report.
Perhaps most concerning is that pesticide cocktails may damage the human body’s very unique ability to heal and repair itself when ill or injured. The farmworker metaphor for all of the processes described in the report is el organísmo. Literally translated, el organísmo means organism, but also refers to the human body and its relationship to the outside world — to the environment.
What is happening to el organísmo? What is it like to live with all of these diseases on top of farmworkers’ economic and social marginalization? How are people coping?
Ultimately, do farmworkers’ lives matter? We absolutely can find ways to grow strawberries and tomatoes for salsa and ketchup without compromising and sacrificing nuestros organísmos. Farmworker community health has to be a priority in California. Farmworkers’ lives matter more than their immediate roles in generating economic wealth.
We need to apply what we’ve learned from this report to work toward ending the untold suffering endured in farmworker communities in part as a consequence of chronic pesticide exposure, and living with and dying of a multitude of terrible diseases. We must change how we study and regulate fumigants and other toxic pesticides and also how we grow food. DPR needs to do its job and protect workers and children from the dangers of pesticide mixtures and their interactive effects. It will take some cultural shifts, but it is not impossible.
Dr. Dvera I. Saxton is an assistant professor of anthropology at CSU Fresno. She is a medical/environmental anthropologist and public scholar whose research focuses on farmworker health disparities and inequalities. She is also a member of the regional group Safe Ag, Safe Schools (formerly Safe Strawberry Monterey Bay Working Group).