In August, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation released new data on acute pesticide-related illnesses and injuries in the state from the year 2017. The grim — though unsurprising — findings? Each year, pesticide use continues to harm hundreds of farmworkers and rural community members across California.
Not just numbers
The Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program (PISP) is the body that identifies and tracks acute pesticide-related illnesses and injuries in the state. These poisonings often take the form of dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Information on cases comes from hospitals and health clinics, which are required by law to notify state authorities of pesticide-related illnesses. However, the real number of cases is probably much higher than what is seen in this report — many pesticide-related illnesses go unreported.
In 2017, PISP identified 1,342 cases of health impacts at least possibly associated with pesticide exposure. Of these cases, 482 were associated with agricultural use pesticides, and 323 of these ag cases were farmworkers. These workers were injured by pesticide exposure in 34 separate episodes in 2017, the largest number of injuries in a single episode being 92.
Of both agricultural and non-agricultural pesticide use illness cases, children under 18 years old comprised 176 (13%) of cases, and four students were exposed to pesticides applied at school sites.
It’s important to keep the people behind these numbers top of mind. When we’re talking about human health, just one case of pesticide-related illness or injury is too many. Farmworkers going to work every day are at risk. Children going to school are at risk. And rural families and community members are at risk just being at home.
An upward trend
As we’re just getting the data from 2017, we won’t see this year’s data until 2023. Thinking about what this year’s numbers could look like is concerning, as the 2017 data show an increase in illnesses and injuries over the previous year.
The 2016 report saw 978 illness cases, 135 of them farmworkers — this year’s data reflecting an astonishing 139% increase in farmworker poisonings. The report claims that “despite slight annual variations. . . the number of associated episodes and cases have been relatively consistent since 2011.”
However, we know that pesticide use is increasing in the U.S. from year to year, according to the “Pesticide Industry Sales and Usage” report. And the data used in this report mainly come from the pesticide industry itself.
Pesticide exposure is a needless and preventable hazard, compounding the many other threats faced by our essential farmworkers, especially at present when they are navigating extreme heat, wildfire smoke, and elevated risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Though this report covers acute incidents of pesticide-related illness (which are probably understated), long term cumulative exposure to these chemicals is a separate health threat that farmworkers, rural families, and agricultural communities face constantly.
Pesticide reform is needed in California — and a first, common-sense step is to ensure that public notification is required around when, where, and how pesticides will be applied near communities. Take action today for more transparency.