The Chemical Contract

A group of people in a field in front of a large piece of farm equipment

This essay on pesticide exposure among migrant farmworkers is the fourth piece in the Unpure Imagination series, which seeks to engage with and challenge themes of toxicity, purity, pollution, and restoration in an always compromised world. Series editors: Ben Iuliano, Kuhelika Ghosh, and Richelle Wilson.

At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the vitalness and vulnerability of farmworkers in the U.S. food system was highlighted by mainstream media. This group of essential workers was rightly praised as they continued to grow and harvest crops despite the high risk of exposure to a deadly virus. But as attention on COVID has waned and the news cycle has shifted, another exposure risk persists. Each season many farmworkers report suffering from acute pesticide poisoning or chronic illness from small doses encountered over time (exact numbers are hard to come by, as there is no standardized monitoring system for tracking pesticide-related illness). At the highest risk are the one to three million migrant farmworkers that labor on U.S. soils each season, who tend to lack resources and recourse for harm. Migrant farm work occurs globally, but the U.S. has a long history of farmworker exploitation, especially among already marginalized groups, that is often willfully ignored by farm owners, policy makers, and consumers. 

As an undergraduate researcher in 2016, I made the journey four times a week for six weeks to interview the migrant farmworkers of Adams County, Pennsylvania about their perceptions of pesticide risk for my undergraduate senior thesis. Twenty minutes outside of Gettysburg, the famed locale of the decisive Civil War battle and Lincoln’s hallmark address, the rolling hills and orchards evoked simpler times and a deep nostalgia for a natural purity that never existed—for wild apples growing from the hillside without human aid or intervention. The oranges and browns of the world welcomed me. But I wasn’t there to appreciate the trees and their transition. I was there to reveal what was hidden between the trunks: the poison coating the apples—the reason our supermarket produce is polished and perfect and the cost to the well-being of the farmworkers who make it possible. 

Exposed Workers

Green book cover for the first edition of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Silent Spring sparked a movement for better pesticide regulation, but farmworker safety is still neglected.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring illuminated the scientific research alerting the American public to the ecological and health impacts of pesticides. After a long and hard battle against entrenched interests, the federal government responded. Banning DDT, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, and passing the Clean Air and Water Acts (among other agencies, laws, and procedures) were defining policies of the early 1970s and a green Nixon administration

Carson and other mainstream environmentalists advocated for safer use of pesticides primarily for environmental responsibility as well as consumer and community health. But the farmworkers exposed daily, chronically, and directly don’t always have the financial, political, and legal privileges of advocacy. Although the threat to eagle eggs may have gotten more attention than the hidden health risks for farmworkers, Silent Spring–era policies for conscientious pesticide use were still successes. Yet it has been half a century since these historic environmental achievements, and pressure for increasing yields has led to government and private sector–funded advances in biotechnology and a wide array of new pesticides. The impacts of multiple chemical interactions and chronic pesticide exposure are just starting to be understood—and the scientific literature may not be keeping up with farmworkers’ lived experiences.

Through my interviews, I learned of a toxic reality. One woman described her battle with breast cancer but didn’t feel confident attributing her diagnosis to her years in the fields. One man spoke of an incident when he was forced to go into a field too soon after it was sprayed and spent the rest of the day with a heavy headache and the night vomiting. I wasn’t there to assess whether people were being poisoned, whether these ailments were statistically associated with chemical applications. I wanted to know how they perceived their exposure, their risk, and their protection by their employer or the government.

The U.S. has a long history of farmworker exploitation, especially among already marginalized groups, that is often willfully ignored.

The stories I heard and conditions I witnessed in Adams County were not unique phenomena. The chemical warfare fought in the apple orchards of the Mid-Atlantic is mirrored in the blueberries of the Northeast and the strawberries and tomatoes of the West. And no level of pesticide use compares to what is found in the corn and soy fields in the Midwest. One billion pounds of conventional pesticides are applied each year in the United States. The toxicity sprayed onto our crops that is experienced by non-target plant and insect species, leached into our soils and waterways, ingested, inhaled, and absorbed by our farmworkers and rural communities is extensive. 

Numerous studies report on the wide range of pesticide-related illnesses that result from chronic, low exposure to pesticides absorbed dermally, inhaled, or ingested. Symptoms and illnesses include headaches, nausea, dermatitis, respiratory failures, musculoskeletal problems, cognitive effects, cancer, and, in some cases, mortality. In women pesticides concentrate in fatty breast tissues, where they can bioaccumulate over time. The toxic chemicals can also be transferred from mother to baby in utero, which has been linked to infant malformations and autism spectrum disorder among other physical and neurological issues. Twenty-eight percent of migrant farmworkers in the U.S. are women. But experiential accounts don’t make simple statistics for policy makers to use. Immigration status and poverty wages aren’t risk factors that policy makers usually prioritize.

Exposing the System

People bent over in rows of strawberry beds with trucks and trees in the background
Workers picking strawberries at a farm in Georgia, USA. Photo by Lance Cheung/USDA, 2019.

It is difficult to quantify and communicate the dangerous extent of pesticide exposure to both the general public and to farmworkers themselves. The transient nature of migrant farm work, coupled with the inability to medically assess pesticide exposure over time, makes it very challenging to measure and convey the toxicity and risk of chronic, low-level pesticide exposure to such a vulnerable population. Further, the pesticide industry is continually evolving. New products are being released or banned every year, making biological sampling (through blood or urine tests) unreliable to measure and assess risk for all pesticides, applied on apple trees or blueberry bushes, old or new. Access to healthcare for migrant farmworkers is also often limited due to socioeconomic status, legal status, or language barriers.

If this highly exposed, nomadic, and medically underserved population weren’t vulnerable enough, migrant children often join their families in the fields picking produce. Every year, 500,000 migrant children as young as seven years old are legally allowed to work 14 hours per day, seven days per week in 48 of the 50 United States, with an estimated 10 percent of migrant agricultural workers being unaccompanied minors. Even if they aren’t directly employed in the fields, children can still be exposed to toxic pesticides if they live or play near sprayed fields, or through contact with family members wearing contaminated clothes. Children (and unborn children) of farmworkers are more vulnerable to pesticide-related health risk given their stage in development. During one of my farm visits, I accidentally interviewed a 16-year-old child before realizing that his age disqualified him from being a participant in my research.

Migrant farmworkers are vulnerable, and their toxicity risk is inordinate and immoral. Can we have a food system without these costs?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) attempts to alleviate concern about pesticide toxicity by insisting that residues are below minimum toxicity requirements. But the interaction of different pesticides is not systematically monitored, nor is the bioaccumulation of toxicants from working in the fields over many seasons. Policies can only provide so much protection when interaction with toxic chemicals is part of the job description. I remember the alarming responses from one farmworker as I asked about the frequency with which he was provided with and used personal protective equipment. Hats? Never. Long sleeves? Never. Gloves? Never. Laundering work clothes between work days? The camp didn’t have laundry facilities. 

Red and orange poster depicting pesticide exposure safety practices pinned to a bulletin board
Worker safety poster in a migrant camp. Photo by the author, 2016.

The effectiveness of protective policies is also severely limited by the legal status of the affected farmworkers. If workers are undocumented, safety is neither guaranteed nor prioritized. Even for documented farmworkers, such as those participating in the H-2A visa program, health and safety policies such as access to personal protective equipment are not always enforced despite how critical they are for such a high-risk population who are chronically exposed to pesticide residue along with high sun conditions and strenuous manual labor. 

For my research, I interviewed workers at migrant camps employed through the H-2A visa program and at camps that employed anyone willing to work. The differences in the facilities were jarring. One camp with H-2A workers displayed worker safety posters pinned to the walls in English and Spanish and offered visible laundry facilities, the scent of sterility permeating the air. At a camp that employed undocumented workers, I sat on a flea-ridden couch supported by dirt, while tired workers sat amid piles of empty beer bottles. At another residence, a house stood with visible patches of shoddy repair, and a mother was in the kitchen preparing aromatic food for all the workers, providing the migrant camp with some semblance of a home.

Pesticide exposure, limited access to healthcare, inadequate safety measures—migrant farmworkers are vulnerable, and their toxicity risk is inordinate and immoral. Can we have a food system without these costs? Can we temper our expectations and desires for perfect produce, letting misshapen spotty apples replace pesticide-heavy production systems? Given globalized supply chains and limited land area for cultivation, can we provide for our needs without risking the health and safety of the very people who make food production possible?

The Future Farmworker Reality

Apple trees against a blue sky
Apple trees in Adams County, Pennsylvania. Photo by the author, 2016.

When I was born, my parents planted an apple tree, a companion to grow with me, oxygenate my world, and bear fruit for my nutrition. Traveling through the Pennsylvanian apple belt, I saw the commodification of the apple tree. Interviewing migrant farmworkers, I felt the commodification of their being. 

In the resulting analysis, I looked for statistical significance in a flattened representation of lived experiences. I quantified migrant farmworkers’ perceptions of pesticide risk and their ability to control and mitigate such risk. But in the end, I can’t help but feel my research will be inconsequential to the toxic realities faced by our nation’s farmworkers. The crops will still grow, the farmworkers will still toil, the pesticides will still be sprayed. 

Yet the future of farmworkers is still unwritten. Like most systemic issues plaguing the vulnerable, solutions are complex and unclear. Advocacy, stronger policy, and frequent monitoring to ensure adequate working environments can help to alleviate inherent risks to some extent, but the health costs of pesticides are still mostly invisible to the majority of the public and policy makers. Greater insights into the lives laboring on our agricultural lands—their pesticide exposure risk and their often disregarded perceptions, their rights and how they’ve been wronged—is perhaps the first step in a long path toward greater farmworker empowerment.

Featured image: Farmworkers harvesting cauliflower in Washington State. Photo by Andrew Reding, 2012.

Micaela Edelson is an environmental writer based in Boulder, Colorado at the Oakley Art House residency. Her work has been featured in the the Washington Post, Gothic Nature Journal, and Sisyphus Magazine, among other outlets. Website. Twitter. Contact.