Farm workers: 'We're not tractors'

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | March 19, 2001

Pastor James Roberts would like to have Southern Baptist churches in Lake City set up a feeding unit like this one to respond to disasters.
Credit: Southern Baptist Convention

"We're not tractors," say tomato pickers in Florida when they tell their story. But they're being treated that way, said Jeannie Economos of The Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc. (FAF), which represents 6,700 farm worker families.

Economos and other advocacy leaders have serious questions about violations of human health -- and human dignity -- hitting thousands of farm workers on the job every day.

Farm workers are living in quiet disaster, earning substandard wages, daily exposed to harmful pesticides, injured and killed in farm machinery mishaps, and treated like sub-humans, said Economos.

An average farm worker makes $9,000 without benefits during a good year. And even the most limited study would likely indicate that long-term exposure to pesticides is taking a serious toll on farm worker families, said Economos.

Methyl bromide is a pesticide commonly used on tomato crops that is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a "Class I acute toxin," a category denoting the most deadly chemicals. Methyl bromide is injected into soil before planting tomatoes to kill insects. Farm workers aren't the only ones who should worry: methyl bromide can drift into communities and into the atmosphere. The pesticide can travel several miles beyond the application area, and in the past homes have been evacuated when toxic levels collected in residential areas.

Methyl bromide was once slated to be banned in 2001 under the Clean Air Act but the deadline has been pushed back indefinitely, even though viable pesticide alternatives are available on the market.

Headaches, nausea, liver damage, and pulmonary edema are common short-term side effects of methyl bromide exposure. Cancer, respiratory problems, memory loss, and allergic reactions are the likely long-term effects, said Economos. "There needs to be something in place to address people's illnesses."

"So many healthcare officials are not tuned into the symptoms of pesticide poisoning. Most doctors don't know the antidote. In Florida, it's so hot, a farm worker might experience dizziness and a doctor will say 'wipe your head with a cool cloth.' Most doctors don't even know the right questions to ask."

Farm workers and other rural residents are also exposed to pesticide through well water, she added. "And when you call the Department of Health, they test for E. coli, and you can also ask them to test for nitrates. But they don't test for pesticides."

FAF is launching a study to observe farm workers' health, testing farm workers in the Florida area for general exposure to neurotoxins. Exposure will be determined by a simple vision test know as the functional acuity contrast test. Test subjects will then be treated with a common cholesterol medicine that was once used to treat cases of acute DDT poisoning.

One of the most visible cases involving possible farm worker exposure to pesticides occurred in 1996, when 14,000 acres of muck farms around Lake Apopka were bought out by the state of Florida after they were found to be contaminated with poisonous algae. A massive cleanup is still ongoing.

In 1999, about 1,000 water birds in the area inexplicably died on the lake's shore, and an odd overpopulation of mice in the area has set residents on edge. Some tests found that an 11-acre area around the lake contains concentrations of the pesticide toxaphene more than 500 times greater than in other fields. Scientists are considering that as a "pesticide hot spot" that caused the bird deaths. Toxaphene is now banned in the U.S., and Lake Apopka is still regarded as the most polluted large lake in Florida.

But even though massive soil and animal testing has been in place for years, there is no required testing of farm workers. And even in states with legislation protecting farm workers, the law isn't enforced, said Economos.

Farm workers don't always know how to stand against this community-wide apathy, said Liz Buckley, also of FAF. "Farm workers are often unfamiliar with worker protection standards and with their rights," she said.

Buckley recently attended training sponsored by the United Church of Christ that covered how to help a community organize in the face of technological disasters such as pesticide exposure. There she learned the importance of publicly communicating the story of "technological disasters," or human-caused harmful events that can include purposeful pesticide exposure, accidental spills of harmful chemicals, "sick" buildings, and other workplace hazards.

"Most technological disasters are not well-known," she said. "You're up against the chemical industry, government agencies, corporate goliaths."

Churches can play an important role in calling attention to those silently suffering through a technological disaster. When a farm worker comes to talk to a congregation, people typically respond with compassion, said Burt Perry, southeast Florida director for National Farmworker Ministry.

Dwight Lawton, who is active on an ecumenical grassroots advocacy group for farm workers in Florida, heard about issues facing farm workers through his own congregation at the Lakeview Presbyterian Church. Now Lawton writes letters, hands out leaflets in supermarkets, and participates in peaceful demonstrations about conditions facing farm workers. "Churches should have a concern about the way we are treating people. I'm afraid farm workers aren't going to get attention until something even more egregious happens to them."

Even when a dramatic natural disaster -- a flood, fire, hurricane, or tornado -- strikes, it's difficult to find a response that includes farm workers, said Economos.

But that would change "if we woke up to the kinds of injustices that are around us. We are so dependent on the labor they provide but we completely ignore their needs and concerns," said Buckley.

"Until enough people speak up we will not be able to change things," added Lawton.

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