The United States Needs to Protect Its Farmworkers from “Danger Season”

June 20, 2023 | 10:12 am
photo of several farmworkers all wearing raincoats, on their knees picking strawberries; a tractor sits idle in the backgroundF Armstrong Photography/Shutterstock
Alice Reznickova
Former Contributor

Farmworkers face many hazards while performing the labor that props up the $1.264 trillion US food and farm economy, yet a new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that federal agencies focused on agriculture and health invested an average of only $16.2 million dollars per year in farmworker health research projects between fiscal years 2019 and 2022. These hazards include climate change, pesticide exposure, and food insecurity, and the risks are at their greatest during the summer months UCS calls Danger Season because of the overlapping impacts of extreme heat, drought, wildfires, and floods.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with The Farmworker Association of Florida‘s Dr. Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli (General Coordinator) and Jeannie Economos (Coordinator of Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Program) to discuss the emerging health and safety issues farmworkers face, and opportunities for the federal government and scientists to intervene. The original conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

ALICE REZNICKOVA: Previous research identified a need for additional research and education on farmworker health. Where have you seen this need most clearly?

JEANNIE ECONOMOS: There isn’t enough research on farmworkers and pesticide exposure—not just acute effects from pesticide exposure, but also intergenerational exposures to pesticides and how it affects the second and third generation. It’s also critically important that there is research done that looks at the compounding effects of pesticide exposure and heat exposure and on the combination of pesticides. Farmworkers aren’t exposed to one pesticide; they are exposed to multiple—not only multiple individual kinds of pesticides but multiple classes of pesticides. What does that do? Nobody’s really looking at the synergistic, cumulative, and additive effects of these pesticides in the human body and what it does to people. Finally, there has not been anywhere near enough research on farmworkers and reproductive health [impacts] from pesticide exposure. There needs to be a whole lot more because we’re talking about a public health issue and health justice.

We need both long-term research in addition to short-term research, but long-term research should not happen at the expense of doing something immediately to protect farmworkers from all exposures.

DR. NEZAHUALCOYOTL XIUHTECUTLI: I think there’s a lot of need for prevention information, or prevention education. For example, regarding occupational health, in the places where we have our offices we provide some training on heat stress and how to prevent it, as well as pesticide exposure. Where we have offices and we provide this training, people generally seem to be more aware of the dangers. But it’s in those more out-of-the-way areas where we don’t have that kind of outreach that we feel like we should be.

Agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), all those agencies that work on different aspects of health could be working on research on farmworker health. But we also need more accountability, more funds for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make sure that any instances of labor violations of environmental regulations are first inspected and that they can also be reported without retaliation towards workers. And that there are enforcement mechanisms to make sure that they don’t continue to occur.

ALICE REZNICKOVA: We have found that the federal government underfunds research on farmworkers’ health. What are the implications of this for farmworkers?

DR. NEZAHUALCOYOTL XIUHTECUTLI: It really creates a health disparity among rural communities and urban communities. There also needs to be more research on this and on the other social repercussions of those disparities between farmworkers and other populations. Access to clinics and food access are issues that people don’t really necessarily think about, and it’s an irony that the people who pick our food often don’t have access to that food because it goes to areas where it fetches a better price. That goes back to health because they don’t have nutritious food to help them prevent diseases.

All the social mechanisms to make sure that people have safety nets need to be addressed because they prevent farmworkers from being able to respond to emerging health and safety hazards. We keep saying this—and it’s true—that farmworker communities are resilient. But resilience only goes so far. We need to not just chalk it up to the resilience, but we all need to actively make sure that they have those tools and mechanisms to rise from the challenges that they’re facing.

ALICE REZNICKOVA: We already know about many of the existing challenges facing farmworkers from farmworkers’ firsthand experiences as well as from research. Looking towards the future, what do you see as the most important health challenges?

JEANNIE ECONOMOS: We need to address mental health and the trauma of discrimination, intimidation, harassment, and these anti-immigrant and racist policies and environments that farmworkers work in that affect their health as well. There should be research on farmworker mental health, but not in isolation from occupational and environmental exposures.

Farmworkers will not complain about being exposed to pesticides. They will not complain about the hot environment because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves, and they do get threatened with being reported to immigration authorities. As a result, they deprioritize their occupational health when they’re more concerned about immigration issues and discrimination and racial profiling. They’ll put up with sexual harassment just because they don’t want to be turned in to immigration and sometimes supervisors, contractors, crew leaders, growers will threaten them with that.

ALICE REZNICKOVA: We know that research should be participatory and codesigned with farmworker advocacy organizations, as well as farmworkers themselves, to ensure it is applicable and that farmworkers directly benefit from the research. Can you provide an example of a research project you’re currently involved in that models exemplary research practices?

JEANNIE ECONOMOS: We have a policy to not even enter a research project unless the academic institution that we’re working with values the knowledge and experience of the organization and of the community, and that treats the organization and the community as full equal partners.

So that’s important, but also there must be something to give back to the community. Our project with Emory University, which was a while ago, was really great. We interviewed close to 250 women and surveyed them. We did focus groups with both Hispanic and Haitian women around reproductive health of farmworker women. We did urine samples to look for organophosphate metabolites and metabolites of a fungicide called Mancozeb. We produced this really awesome training out of that for women on reproductive health and that addressed heat and pesticides and ergonomic stress and how to talk to your doctor. We did those trainings for at least two years and the women just loved the trainings.

DR. NEZAHUALCOYOTL XIUHTECUTLI: We also talked to the community about things that they were interested in hearing about. And through health research, we were able to provide some more information from those biomarkers that we had measured, like glucose levels, cholesterol levels, even though it had nothing to do with the study. For a family who doesn’t have access to health care, being able to at least get some general health readings on where they are is important. We give them this information, we give them a copy of their chart, and we tell them: “When there’s a clinic here, go to the doctor. Be sure to bring this information.” We also organize clinics with different universities’ free clinics, which is not sustained health care, but it is important.

ALICE REZNICKOVA: How can scientists and the public support farmworkers better?

JEANNIE ECONOMOS: We attended a meeting of this Science Advisory Committee of the EPA on chemicals and there were about 50 scientists in that meeting. They had a hearing in which people, such as an organization like ours, could address the Science Advisory Committee about some of our concerns. These panels are important to organizations like ours, and scientists can provide their expertise by serving on them.

Another way that people can be involved is by submitting comments. When the EPA is making some regulatory decisions, they open proposals up for a public comment period, and submitting comments in support of farmworkers’ health to these public dockets—especially from scientists while citing the scientific literature—is very powerful because they can bring scientific credibility to those spaces.

Another thing that scientists can do is to engage in these research projects with the proper framework: that it’s not solely for scientific research and to get the check mark on your resume, but that you do really care about public health and health justice. Just having ethics in research and understanding and valuing your community partner as an equal.

I worked for a long time with the Lake Apopka farmworkers who were exposed to organochlorine pesticides. Dr. Louis Guillette (embryology) and Dr. Elizabeth Guillette (anthropology), who studied pesticides at the University of Florida, came out to our big community meetings with farmworkers. We had like 100 community members there that were affected by pesticides. And the Guillettes talked about their studies to the community and to the news media. Do you know how honored that made the community feel that the scientists would come there and talk to them in their meeting? Things like that are very valuable and very important.

DR. NEZAHUALCOYOTL XIUHTECUTLI: Another way is to advocate for farmworkers. There are some bills that we are supporting because they support farmworker communities, such as S.3283 (Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act), S.5138 (Industrial Agricultural Accountability Act), and S.3285 (Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act). These bills need to be included in the upcoming food and farm bill because they provide important provisions that enhance the health and safety of farmworkers and food workers.