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Changes Needed to Reduce Migrant Farm Worker Exposure to Pesticides Say Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center Researchers

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Despite federal guidelines to protect migrant farm workers and their families from pesticide exposure, these chemicals still pose an important health risk that won’t be reduced without several changes, according to researchers from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in the current issue of The Lancet.

"Changes in housing, hygiene procedures and pesticide application are essential to protect the health of these workers and their families," said Thomas A. Arcury, Ph.D. "Although the symptoms of pesticide exposure are well known, we are only now learning their immediate and delayed health effects."

Adults exposed to pesticides can experience neurological deficits, increased risk of cancer, and reproductive problems. Effects for children can include birth defects and developmental delay.

Arcury, professor of family medicine, and Sara Quandt, Ph.D., professor of public health sciences, are co-authors of the essay, which is based on their 10-year study of pesticide exposure among North Carolina farm workers.

According to the essay, in an average year in the United States approximately 950 million tons of pesticides are applied to crops. Ten years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the Worker Protection Standard, setting standards for safety training and hygiene related to these pesticides. However, a report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office found that the standards have failed to halt farm workers’ exposure to pesticides.

The Wake Forest study confirmed the finding. For example, analysis of "wipe" samples from the floors, children’s toys and children’s hands of one farm worker family found two different agricultural pesticides. Urine samples from the worker, his wife and two of their four children found evidence of exposure to six pesticide metabolites (breakdown products that are evidence of a variety of pesticides).

"This worker and his family are typical of the farm worker families in our study," said Arcury and Quandt. "Agricultural and residential pesticides are in their homes and there is evidence of pesticide exposure in their bodies."

The researchers said that farm worker families have little knowledge about pesticide exposure or how to reduce their risk.

"The only official safety training most farm workers receive is based on the Worker Protection Standard, which gives scant attention to residential exposure," said Quandt. "In addition, not all workers received this required training, and those who do don’t always receive the full training."

The researchers said that multiple changes will be required to reduce exposure and health risks. They said farm workers need:

  • Access to safe housing located away from agricultural fields.
  • Laundry equipment to remove pesticides from work clothes.
  • The ability to shower and change into clean clothes at work.
  • Sufficient clothing to wear clean clothes daily.
  • Full pesticide training as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition, changes in agricultural practices are needed so that pesticides applied to fields do not enter farm worker homes.

"Many of these workers and their families live in dilapidated rental housing with antiquated heating systems, ill-fitting windows and doors, and old septic systems," said Arcury. "Many of these houses are surrounded by agricultural fields."

In North Carolina, more than 100,000 mostly Mexican natives work on farms. They are either permanent residents or migrate to the state. On these farms, pesticides are used to improve the production of such crops as tobacco, vegetables, fruits and Christmas trees.

Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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