Pesticide Perils: Children at Risk

Last week the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) released a report entitled A Generation in Jeopardy: How Pesticides are Undermining our Children’s Health and Intelligence highlighting the disturbing connections between pesticide exposure and an alarming array of health risks, particularly for young children.
The potential harms to a child’s health are numerous, and include a disquieting list: heightened rates of allergies and asthma are at the lighter end of this spectrum which extends to include autism, birth defects and escalated cases of childhood leukemia and brain cancer.

“I’m worried-truly worried-about the children in our community. We know how dangerous pesticides are, and here are our children spending their days breathing, playing, eating, and touching all that those pesticides leave behind after they are sprayed in our greenhouses. I wonder what this is going to mean for our children’s health and for the health of generations to come,” states Ana Laura Bolaños, President of Alianza de Mujeres Activas (AMA), a community-based organization supporting the needs of farmworker women in the fern-growing communities of northern Florida.

Farmworker children are especially susceptible to the ill effects of pesticides. Often living in close proximity to the fields, orchards, or ferneries as described by Ms. Bolaños above, children in these communities repeatedly come into contact with pesticide residues-a danger that is difficult to avoid. PANNA’s most recent report substantiates this, pointing out that children living in areas of intensive agriculture are particularly at risk. Pierson, FL where AMA is based is one such community.

What can farmworker families do to help protect their children? One place to start is by providing farmworkers with more information about the harmful health effects from pesticides that they and their families are exposed to everyday. Even though agricultural employers are required to provide a minimal pesticide safety training to farmworkers, most workers report that they either don’t receive training or that the training they receive is of very poor quality. Farmworkers need comprehensive information about pesticides, from sources other than their employers, delivered in a manner and a language that is comprehensible to them. Responding to these concerns, Farmworker Justice has developed a program funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Children’s Health Protection that addresses how to reduce the risks of pesticide exposure and lead hazards in the home environment. Piloting the project with three community-based organizations (CBOs) in California, Arizona, and Florida, promtores de salud (lay health educators) offer farmworker families in their home communities strategies that highlight how they can assess their risk as well as practical solutions to help mitigate their exposure.

Recently a promotora with Campesinos Sin Fronteras, one of the participating CBOs based in San Luis, Arizona, shared a story highlighting the impact of this project. In the course of her outreach she met a 17 year old farmworker that spoke of his fatigue after working a long day in the fields. By the time he arrived home late in the evenings he was often so exhausted that he fell into bed without showering or changing out of his work clothes. Unfortunately, he shared his bed with his younger brother, and until this point had never realized he could be exposing his brother (and himself) to harm by the simple act of not showering after a day’s work. At the conclusion of the presentation he was emphatic in the changes he would make to better protect both himself and his younger brother.

This story speaks to some of the practical “consejos” (advice) the promotores are able to offer their community; showering after work, leaving work boots outside the house, washing work gear separately from family clothes, cleansing hands with soap and water before eating, drinking, or using the bathroom are examples of concrete recommendations that can assist farmworkers in attaining a safer home environment for their families.

Join Farmworker Justice and Pesticide Action Network North America in getting the conversation about pesticides and children started by taking the pledge to be a kids' health conversation starter in your community!