Environmental Health

The vast majority of US farmworkers have low incomes, no health insurance, and limited access to health care, making them particularly vulnerable to environmental and occupational health hazards. Substandard housing, inadequate waste and garbage disposal, dietary and environmental exposures to lead, industrial pollution of air and water, and the widespread use of agricultural pesticides are a few examples of environmental hazards that pose serious, preventable health risks to farmworker families. Often farmworkers lack knowledge of the potential health consequences they face from exposures to such hazards and they are unaware of practical ways to reduce or eliminate their exposures. Likewise, many are unaware of resources in their communities that can provide preventive health care and medical treatment for hazardous environmental exposures.

Farmworkers and their families have poorer physical and mental health than the general population. While there are little nationwide data, the information available shows elevated infant mortality rates and shorter life expectancy than the national average. Farmworker children show a higher prevalence of many adverse health conditions than the general population. Some of these increased risks include bacterial and viral gastroenteritis, intestinal parasites, respiratory and skin infections, ear infections, pesticide exposure, poor nutrition, anemia, short stature, and tuberculosis.

Many farmworkers wake up every morning in old, dilapidated dwellings. Broken stoves, toilets, refrigerators, or showers, leaking roofs, and sagging ceilings are common. Electric power and running water can be unreliable. Undocumented workers and their children are twice as likely to live in facilities without access to working sanitary facilities. Poor migrant housing conditions negatively impact the health of farmworkers and especially their children. Some health consequences associated with substandard and crowded farmworker housing include respiratory illnesses, ear infections, diarrhea, and higher occurrences of lead poisoning.

Families of farmworkers come into contact with pesticides in a variety of ways. Children may work alongside their parents to help support their families financially, or simply come with their parents to the fields so they will not be home unsupervised. Such children receive immediate direct dermal exposure to pesticides and continuous exposure by residues on their clothes. Farmworkers and their families may wash their hands in run-off water outside of the house that contains pesticides from the surrounding fields. Pesticides can drift into their yards, homes, schools and daycare centers when located near fields. Farmworker parents can also bring pesticides into the home on their tools, clothes, shoes, and skin and can expose their children through something as simple as a hug before they shower. The lack of washing machines in most farmworker homes means that farmworkers’ clothing may not be washed as often and will not come as clean as it would if washed in a machine. In addition, workers may wash contaminated clothes with the general family laundry, rather than separating them first.

Farmworker Justice has developed a curriculum and outreach materials for promotores de salud to bring environmental health education to farmworker communities. These materials aim to alert the community to practical ways in which they can reduce or eliminate their exposures to environmental health hazards, including residential pesticide exposure and lead poisoning.