Trouble on the Farm
Growing Up with Pesticides in Agricultural Communities
Top of Report
CHILDREN IN THE FIELDS
"The first field we visited could have been mistaken for a day care center. There were many small children in the field with their parents. Some were sitting in the dirt, just being near their families. Some were picking strawberries just like their parents and older siblings. We saw a baby stroller which was advanced a few feet occasionally to keep up with the progress of the picking. The families were together, but there wasn't much joy. At 12 cents a pound for the strawberries, minus room and board costs, this day care center was a part of survival."
-- Scott Pike, Optometrist (Testimonies from the Fields, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Woodburn, OR, 1997)
"Someday, I want my children to be treated like human beings, not like animals. It's not right that the children work. But we have to do it."
-- Pasqual Mares, Bowling Green, OH (Foster and Kramer, Associated Press, December 14, 1997)
In the United States, children rarely enter most workplaces, such as factories,mines, and even offices. Yet children are frequently found in agricultural fields, even though heavy equipment and toxic chemicals are used in these workplaces. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), children 14 and over may work unlimited hours in agricultural occupations outside school hours. Children as young as 10 may also work in agriculture if they have written parental consent. Children under age 16 are prohibited from working with hazardous substances; however, according to federal regulations, agricultural occupations themselves are not considered to be particularly hazardous for children. Children of farmers can work on their parents' farm at any age.
An estimated 300,000 children ages 15-17 work in U.S. agriculture at some point during the year, representing more than 7 percent of all hired farmworkers working on crops. The National Agricultural Workers' Survey of 1989 estimated there were 587,000 children of migrant workers age 21 or younger involved in seasonal agricultural services in the United States. Of these children, 65 percent were reported to travel with their parents but not do farm work; 6 percent traveled and participated in farm work; another 29 percent traveled on their own to do farm work. The Associated Press, in a recent investigative series on child labor in the U.S., visited several fields throughout the country over a 5-month period, and reported seeing 104 children, as young as 4, working in the fields. The remarkable Associated Press articles brought national attention to the problem of child labor:
The poorest and most vulnerable among them start working before other children start kindergarten. Many earn wages below the legal minimum, often in exhausting, or even hazardous, jobs. These children live in a world apart from most Americans, hidden from consumers and even the companies that buy the products of their labor. Yet those products can sometimes be as close as the local mall or the corner grocery.
According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, in the period from 1992-1995, between 400 and 600 workers under age 18 reported work related injuries each year, and about 140 children died doing agricultural work.89 Other estimates of health impacts are higher, up to an estimate of 27,000 children under age 19 injured annually in U.S. agriculture, and 300 deaths per year. Yet in the face of these numbers, the director of governmental relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, an agricultural lobbying group stated, "I've never seen anyone working on any farm anywhere who is under the age of 18."
A 1990 survey of 50 farmworker children in New York State revealed that despite legal prohibitions against working with hazardous substances, 10 percent of children under age 18 reported mixing or applying pesticides. One-third of the children had been injured at work within the past year, more than 40 percent had worked in fields still wet with pesticides, and 40 percent had been sprayed either by crop-dusters or by drift. In this survey, 15 percent of the children reported having experienced health symptoms consistent with organophosphate pesticide poisoning, but few had sought medical care for the symptoms.
Children, in addition to entering fields for work, often accompany their parents to the fields due to the lack of childcare. The frequency with which children are brought to the fields while their parents work is hard to quantify, yet several small surveys and numerous anecdotal reports indicate that young children are often in the fields. According to a survey in the mid-Atlantic states in 1994, 12.5 percent of migrant workers who have children reported bringing their children to the fields with them at least some of the time. An EPA representative publicly acknowledged ". . . sometimes parents have to leave the kids resting inside the car or if the parents are working under the trees, the kids sit down near them under a tree. The parents work from sunrise to sunset. . . ." (Kay Rudolph, EPA Meeting with Farmworkers, Fresno, CA, July 22, 1996). Documented health effects demonstrate that these concerns are not merely theoretical, but are a significant problem that needs to be addressed.
Addressing the problem of child labor in agriculture will not be easy, however. The reasons children work are primarily economic. Three out of four migrant families report earning less than $5,000 per year, and according to an expert interviewed by the Associated Press, "If adults were paid a living wage, we wouldn't have child labor." Furthermore, childcare is not available in many agricultural areas, leaving parents with few options. Ironically, in some agricultural areas where Head Start programs and day care centers do exist, they are located immediately adjacent to fields and are readily contaminated with over-spray from pesticide applications nearby.
Although children as young as 10 can legally work in the fields, and there is documentation of younger children accompanying their parents to the fields, reentry intervals (which stipulate how long growers must wait after pesticide applications before allowing workers back into sprayed fields) are calculated based on a theoretical 150-pound male. Children, who weigh much less and have a greater skin surface area than adults relative to their size, are likely not adequately protected by current reentry intervals.
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