PANNA: Pesticides Poison Farmworkers


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Pesticides Poison Farmworkers
September 23, 2002

A new report on pesticide-related worker health and safety in California finds that farmworkers face a double threat: existing safety regulations do not protect workers or their families, and the regulations, inadequate as they are, are frequently not enforced. Fields of Poison 2002, released this week by Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), California Legal Rural Assistance Foundation (CRLAF), United Farm Workers (UFW), and Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR) analyzes pesticide poisoning data collected by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) along with records of state enforcement of pesticide regulations in the field.

The study clearly illustrates that existing laws are not adequate to prevent acute poisonings. More than half of the cases studied occurred when pesticides were applied according to legal standards, and nearly 40% of the poisonings from pesticide drift occurred even though regulations governing application were followed. The report also found that nearly one in three inspections by DPR turned up a violation of pesticide worker safety regulations, but warnings or fines were issued in only a small fraction of those cases. In 2000/2001, less than 20% of confirmed violations resulted in a letter, warning or fine.

Farmworkers are more at risk of pesticide poisonings than any other sector of society. “The time is long overdue for DPR to move from counting poisonings and violations to making the fields safe for workers,” said Anne Katten, one of the authors of the study and Pesticide and Work Safety Project Director of CRLAF.

Worldwide, the International Labor Organization estimates that agricultural workers now number 1.3 billion. Approximately 59% of that workforce is in developing countries where pesticide regulations and worker safety standards are far below California standards. If agriculture workers in California are routinely being poisoned by pesticides as a result of inadequate and under-enforced regulations, then clearly all agricultural workers are at risk.

Internationally, pesticide poisoning of agricultural workers is routinely undercounted. Farmworkers and their families suffer from both acute poisoning and higher rates of a number of illnesses related to chronic and long-term exposure. The statistics relied upon by the World Health Organization (WHO) for acute poisonings are based on 16 year old data. WHO also notes that the majority of pesticide poisonings go unreported, and that 99% of the deaths from pesticide poisonings occur in developing countries, which are responsible for only 25% to 33% of world pesticide use.

Acute poisonings are drastically undercounted for a number of reasons. Data is often based on hospital registrations, yet low income workers in Third World countries rarely can go to hospitals for treatment. When an Indonesian study compared farmworkers self-reported data with field medical observations, one in five agricultural workers showed medical symptoms of poisoning, one in ten actually reported that poisoning, and less than one in 100 attempted to get medical assistance. In this case, poisonings were one hundred times more than those reported.

Growing evidence also links chronic pesticide exposure to a variety of cancers, hormone or endocrine disruption and birth defects. Farmworkers, their families and communities are at risk of chronic exposures, from clothing worn in the field and washed at home and from the location of communities and schools adjacent to spray areas. Several recent studies reveal higher rates of cancers among farmworkers, and link parental pesticide exposures to childhood cancers. New evidence also lays blame on endocrine disruptors, and many pesticides are in this category, for decreased male fertility as well as birth defects. Even small amounts of some pesticides during certain periods of pregnancy, (oganochlorine pesticides in the first trimester, for example) have been implicated in birth defects.

The Fields of Poison report challenges California’s Department of Pesticide Reform to institute a series of improvements to protect vulnerable agricultural workers and their families. Recommendations include:

  • Eliminating the most hazardous pesticides and drift-prone application methods which would reduce many acute and chronic pesticide poisonings;
  • Reducing pesticide drift and pesticide residue exposures with buffer zones during pesticide applications;
  • Better posting and notification, and longer waiting periods before workers reenter fields;
  • Raising fines and assessing them routinely; and
  • Improving farmworkers’ access to pesticide information and healthcare.

Adequate regulation and enforcement, as well as access to information and medical assistance are critical to protect farmworkers worldwide as they go about the job of putting food on our table.

For more information or to download a copy of the report, go to


Fields of Poison 2002, PANNA, Californians for Pesticide Reform, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and United Farm Workers of America; “Effects of estradiol 17B and environmental estrogens on mammalian sperm function,” Fraser L.R. et al, Presented at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, Vienna, July 2002 (download at; Our Stolen Future Web site (; “Relationship of pesticide spraying to signs and symptoms in Indonesian farmers,” Scand J Work Environ Health, 1995, 21: 124-33.



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