Many Hispanic farmworker families in North Carolina live in inadequate housing that puts them at higher risk of exposure to disease, toxins and overcrowding that can affect their psychological well-being, according to new research by Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
“Our findings suggest that the health of farmworker families is at risk due to inadequate housing,” said Thomas Arcury, Ph.D., lead researcher. “It is important to improve these conditions because of the vital role they play in the state farm economy and therefore, the state economy of North Carolina.”
Data for the analysis came from four surveys of North Carolina farmworker communities conducted in 2001 and 2003. The results are reported in the April issue of the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health.
“There has been very little research to document the housing in which farmworker families live,” said Arcury, professor of family and community medicine. “This study provides the first detailed data and can serve as a starting point in changing policy on migrant worker housing and educating farmworker families how to mitigate the detrimental effects of poor housing quality.”
Previous research on housing quality in general has found that it is an important determinant of health. Crowding and inadequate sanitary facilities, for example, can contribute to a higher incidence of infectious diseases. Crowding has also been shown to affect psychological well-being. And structural or electrical problems can result in injuries as well as exposure to toxic substances such as lead and pesticides.
This study focused on describing the specific housing conditions of immigrant farmworker families in North Carolina and identifying housing features that place these families at risk for environmental exposures. It is based on data from 234 households.
The researchers analyzed information from multiple interviews conducted by fluent speakers of Spanish who were specially trained for the project. Participants were from households that contained at least one adult farmworker with at least one young child. Most of the primary contacts were female, and the majority of the occupants of the households were from Mexico.
The researchers looked at three aspects of housing that could affect family health: dwelling characteristics, household characteristics and household behavior. They found that many of the aspects of housing quality are substandard. Most families live in mobile homes that are in a state of disrepair due to landlord neglect. Many dwellings are located near agricultural fields where exposure to pesticides is greatest.
More than half of the participants (54 percent to 71 percent across the four surveys) live in mobile homes, compared to 7 percent of the general U.S. population and 15 percent of the rural U.S. population. The dwellings are small, exacerbating the crowded conditions caused by the large size of farmworker households that may include related and unrelated adults. Among farmworkers in the study, 36 percent to 46 percent lived in crowded conditions, compared to an estimated 3 percent of the rural population.
In addition, many households lack clothes washers and dryers and vacuum cleaners. From 36 percent to 42 percent of the families did not have a working washer at home, compared to 16 percent for the rural U.S. population.
According to Arcury, documenting the problem is the first step in working toward a solution.
The research was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Co-researchers were Julie Early, M.S., Sara A. Quandt, Ph.D., Stephen W. Davis, M.A., Pamela Rao Ph.D., and Beverly M. Snively, Ph.D., all with Wake Forest Baptist.
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Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. U.S. News & World Report ranks Wake Forest University School of Medicine 30th in primary care, 41st in research and 14th in geriatrics training among the nation's medical schools. It ranks 32nd in research funding by the National Institutes of Health. Almost 150 members of the medical school faculty are listed in Best Doctors in America.