By Michael Marsh
Many of us buy organic vegetables and products when they’re available. We seek a healthy diet, and don’t want to expose ourselves or our children to residues from toxic pesticides which have been shown to build-up in our bodies.
But the principal reason that I buy organic vegetables isn’t to protect my family, it’s to protect farmworkers and their families. If I fear that eating minute residues of pesticides will damage my health, imagine what life must be like for a farmworker.
As an attorney for farmworkers, I am aware of the many problems they face–low pay, long work hours, back-breaking work, little respect, fear of deportation, and numerous health risks. Add to that pesticides. And not pesticides in the quantities that we consumers see. I’m talking pesticides in bulk!
In a recent opinion piece I wrote for Salinas’ daily paper, I discussed the dangerous pesticides facing farmworkers and farmworker communities today. To give you just two examples, in Monterey County where I live, approximately 8 million pounds of pesticides are applied each year. Half of that amount is extremely toxic fumigants like chloropicrin and methyl bromide, which has been banned internationally but is still used in California. But that’s just a beginning. In Tulare county, approximately 25 million pounds of pesticides are used each year. That’s 55 pounds for each person living in the county!
Farmworkers work in fields that have been sprayed with pesticides and they work near fields that are being sprayed with pesticides. Then they go home to houses located near fields that have been treated with pesticides. And they bring pesticide residues home to their children in the form of dust and soil carried on their boots and clothes. Finally, unable to afford organic vegetables, they eat the same commercial foods with pesticide residues that the average consumer eats.
State and federal agencies do little to study, let alone protect farmworkers from the long term impact of these pesticides. There is a ray of hope, however. CHAMACOS, run by the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at U.C. Berkeley, is midway in a long-term study of the impacts of pesticides on farmworker women and their children. CHAMACOS has already shown a correlation between pesticide exposure and low birth weight and slowed child development, and they continue to study changes in practices that could reduce exposure to pesticides in farmworkers and their children.
California law requires that every employer provide employees with a safe and healthy workplace. Farmwork is no exception. For all of us who do not grow the food we eat, we owe it to farmworkers to oppose the use of dangerous pesticides such as chloropicrin.
Michael Marsh is Directing Attorney of the Salinas office of California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. His practice focuses on working with farmworkers to improve the quality of their working lives.