Want to receive the Coastal Plains Environmental Advocate by email? Click here to SUBSCRIBE and share my posts with your friends.
The estimated 50,000 people who work in the state’s $70 billion agricultural industry have one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that farmworkers die from heat-related illness at a rate 20 times greater than the entire US civilian workforce as a whole. They are also twice as likely to die from pesticide poisoning than workers in other occupations.
Those are only two reasons why farmworkers will likely be among the first to experience the most severe impacts of climate change.
Pesticide use has been a long-time health risk for farmworkers, especially for the migrant and seasonal workers. A lot has changed since the 2009 study in Reviews of Environmental Health found that more than one billion pounds of pesticide active ingredients were being used in US agriculture each year. Climate change is expanding pesticide use and the harms they cause. Rising temperatures mean more pests and weeds which farmers are trying to combat by using more pesticides.
While crop spraying and working in fields too soon after they have been treated can lead to direct exposure, farmers and their families are also at risk from indirect exposure. Many live near fields that have been sprayed. Workers who have applied or come into contact with pesticides carry them home on their clothing or shoes and expand the circle of infection to their families.
Children are already especially vulnerable to pesticide poisoning because they absorb disproportionately higher levels of pesticides. The dose remains with them longer because they metabolize toxins more slowly than adults. Their still developing nervous systems can be permanently damaged by pesticide exposures. Women also experience reproductive complications due to pesticide exposure, including increased risk of infertility, premature delivery, and infants with congenital defects.
The EPA's Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS) is supposed to reduce pesticide poisonings among agricultural workers and pesticide handlers. The WPS was revised in 2015 to reduce exposure incidents among farmworkers and their families. But WPS is only effective if workers receive and understand the required WPS training and farm owners comply with the regulations.
The National Farmworkers Ministry says that the protective clothing used to avoid pesticide exposure can spike the “feels like” temperature for farmworkers by up to 27℉. This increases the risk of heat stress.
Along with Florida and California, North Carolina ranks in the top three of states for heat-related fatalities among farmworkers. Working long hours in the sun without adequate water or shade breaks brings about heat-related illnesses such as nausea, dizziness, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, dehydration, and even death.
Many migrant and seasonal farmworkers live in grower-provided housing, which is too often substandard and lacks air conditioning. Temperatures can exceed 100 degrees and don't go much lower at night. These conditions not only increase the risk of heat sickness, pesticide exposure and infectious diseases, it makes it nearly impossible to get a good night's sleep and recover from the day's labor.
As temperatures continue to rise, the risk for farmerworkers will, too.