Working in a Toxic Environment: The Effect of Pesticides on Farm Employees
The special rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council have pointed out that more than 200,000 people die each year due to pesticide poisoning. And according to rough estimates, at least 2 million cases of pesticide related health issues are reported annually . The exact number is probably much higher because many people do not seek medical help or attribute health problems to different reasons.
Chemicals have been making their way into our agricultural systems since World War II, and today they have become so widespread that people have even started to disregard basic safety measures when applying them or handling sprayed produce.
Over 2 billion kilograms of pesticides are applied every year on crops all over the world, even though, only 0.1% of this amount reaches the targeted pests. The rest 99.9% is recklessly released into the environment, where it silently ravages ecosystems and human health .
Farm workers are exposed to pesticides in unprecedented amounts, as they are the ones who come into direct contact with these chemicals, with contaminated soils, or sprayed crops. In some cases, workers are even not aware that they are directly dealing with toxic chemicals.
What makes the whole situation worse is that these nasty chemicals remain on our clothes, skin, or hair, and in this way they get distributed into households of farm workers where they create a highly toxic environment for their children to live in.
Hidden danger of farmers’ exposure to pesticides
Pesticides are the leading cause of many serious health problems. Their impacts vary from immediate problems to chronic diseases that might begin to show their symptoms many years after exposure.
This makes the chances of a correct diagnosis very slim and highlights even more the importance of detailed research in this field since the information about toxicity and the impact of different substances on the human organism is still incomplete. Some of the symptoms linked to pesticide poisoning that are known to us today are listed below.
Short-term health problems
- Rashes and irritations (eye, skin, nerve)
- Difficulty in breathing
- Loss of consciousness
Long-term health problems
- Suppression of the immune system:
This results in lower resistance of an organism to common diseases and minor infections.
Some of the newest research links pesticide poisoning with high rates of depression and increased vulnerability to committing a suicide amongst farmers .
- Neurological disorders:
A risk of giving birth to a child with autism is six times higher for women that have come into contact with organochlorine pesticides .
- Hormonal problems, birth defects, infertility:
Pesticides mess with our endocrine system, which brings hormones out of balance, and affects the whole reproductive system, eventually leading to cancer development. Atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides on corn and soybean in the U.S., is likely to cause disruptions of endocrine system .
Children exposed to effects of pesticides are more likely to develop brain cancer . Similarly, cancer of prostate, ovaries, breast or testicles is found in higher rates at those with pesticide residuals in blood .
Needless to say given this long list of health conditions, and as also highlighted in the UN report, that on some occasions exposure to pesticides can lead to death.
The impossible mission to track the scope of the problem
It is nearly impossible to have an overview of the whole scope of the problem. Even with the obligation of medical institutions to report suspected cases of pesticide poisoning in many countries, a high number of incidents remain unnoticed due to a number of reasons. These include false diagnosis, or failure to report the case.
The most common situation is where workers intentionally omit seeking medical care. Many farm workers live in poverty and are often foreigners with different cultural background. They would tend to avoid getting professional help because they may not have a work permit or health insurance, due to language barriers, or because they are unaware of the potential danger, or they might be in fear of losing their job.
But it is not only farm workers who do not seek help when experiencing symptoms of pesticide poisoning. Farmers and their families often neglect their own health as well. It is because they are too busy with the management of a farm and work long hours without rest, especially during the important periods of sowing and harvest.
Prevention of further cases of pesticide poisoning
In many cases, farm workers are either not fully aware of the dangerous effects of working with pesticides, or they are not informed about their presence on products they handle. This can be prevented through education and proper training. With better awareness, especially amongst farming communities in developing countries, there is a good chance of reducing overuse of these harmful chemicals along with creating greater awareness of their dangerous impacts on health. Some non-governmental organizations have established free educational classes and hotlines for this purpose.
Within the U.S., the safety centers of the National Program for Occupational Safety and Health in Agriculture gather information utilizing the most up-to-date research and offer educational programs with internships to lower the probability of such negative incidents in agriculture.
Another way of preventing such health issues is the adoption of Integrated Pest Management, which outlines how it is possible to grow healthy crops with minimal use of pesticides, and encourages the use of biological pest control methods.
In developing countries, this has proven to be successful a concept in the “Farmer Field School”, one of the strategies of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to reduce the use of pesticides. It is non-formal education approach that enables farmers to learn through experimenting with the best ways of getting rid of pests naturally on their local crops without using toxic chemicals. Except for lowering the risk of pesticide exposure, participating farmers also save a significant amount of money by not having to purchase any agricultural chemicals .
Lastly, every person as a consumer can help reduce pesticide use on the sources of our life-giving nutrients by eating organically produced food from local farmers. This approach is not only more environmentally friendly, but it will also encourage a shift from “dirty” conventional farming towards sustainable clean farming with less incidents of fatal poisoning by toxic chemicals.