Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Strawberry Fields and Farm Workers

While the sun is generally credited for various forms of skin cancer, recent studies link the health of farmworkers employed in fields that are sprayed with pesticides. Though sun exposure can also be attributed to the rising rate of melanoma, studies also show links to farm labor employment. Even more specifically studies indicate that farm workers exposed to pesticides have higher chances of developing the skin disease. The damage however doesn't end there. The correlations between pesticide use and brain cancer are also emerging.

The USDA and others including William Kandel underscore farmworkers ". . . . make a major contribution to agriculture by providing labor during critical production periods." To what extent then are we protecting the nation's farm workers?

Generally federal law governs and obligates agricultural employers to an environmental and health and safety legal regime. Some states moreover have also undertaken their own pesticide reporting requirements that track usage amount and exposure. California for example adopted the Farm Worker Health Act to monitor pesticide exposure and protect workers. To the detriment of farm laborers however the State also approved the use of methyl iodide asserting that its decision followed extensive research.

Methyl iodide is employed to fumigate the soil before the planting of strawberries and yet scientists characterize the pesticide as "one of the most toxic chemicals one earth." Many strawberry owners nonetheless insist that its use is critical to producing and harvesting the fruit. Against such assertions it is difficult to reconcile the use value of methyl iodide against its well established links with inter alia cancer and miscarriages and the host of health challenges farm laborers experience.

Numerous hearings and extensive protests from farmworkers, environmentalists and activists have failed to obtain the reversal of the State's decision to approve the use of this particular pesticide. The State's resistance to reconsider its decision renders it difficult to reconcile the well established importance of farm laborers in feeding the nation. This inaction thereby obligated farmworkers and environmental groups to file a lawsuit earlier this year challenging the approval of methyl iodide in the State. The lawsuit is also grounded on assertions that the State violated various laws that are aimed at protecting workers.

It is no secret that farm workers "load, mix and apply hazardous pesticide chemicals, including organophosphates and carbamates." Yet remedies law chases causation to establish damages for work related injuries. In innumerable instances farmworkers lack health insurance and the financial means to establish the causative links with the health related injuries from pesticide use.

Although causative links present formidable challenges a few obvious clues exist as to the immediate impact of methyl iodide on workers. Farmworkers for example tell us that: ". . . .first we smell the pesticides, then our eyes burn, our noses run and our throats hurt." Is the long sought after ban of methyl iodide forthcoming?

Perhaps as a "warning" to recalcitrant states and perhaps responding to the numerous panels and hearings on the pesticide's impact on workers, the Environmental Protection Agency, announced it would reconsider allowing the use of methyl iodide. It recently opened a commentary period to the public.

April 30th however ends the comment period. If the assertions of the USDA, agricultural employers and others constitute value as to the importance of farm laborers then time is of the essence.

Third year law student and my research assistant for two years, April Stancliff contributed to this posting.


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