Trouble on the Farm
Growing Up with Pesticides in Agricultural Communities
Top of Report
"…an instructor's assistant at a Sutter County preschool was trained in pesticide safety. She transmitted that information to her husband, who is a farmworker in that area. She emphasized to her husband the importance of avoiding contact with their only child after work because of the risk of contaminating the child with pesticide residue that might be present on his clothing. Before, the farmworker husband would arrive home from work and greet his spouse and child with hugs and other family gestures and eventually play with his child for a while and then, afterwards, shower."
-- Eduardo Barriga (Public Meeting in Fresno, CA, July 23, 1996)
Take-home" exposures to toxic workplace hazards have been reported for nearly a century in various settings. In the early 1900s, lead poisoning was reported in wives and children of lead workers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Workers' Home Contamination Study, released in 1995, revealed that home contamination is a worldwide problem, and identified incidents from 28 countries and 36 states. The report includes over 100 known deaths of family members from asbestos-related mesothelioma, numerous cases of poisoning by metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, exposures to radioactive, estrogenic, and infectious agents from the workplace, and pesticide poisonings. Extensive experience with lead has demonstrated that working parents can bring this toxicant home on their clothing and skin and contaminate the home environment, directly resulting in elevated blood lead levels and even illness in their children.,  This route of exposure can also occur with pesticides.
Pesticide exposures to family members have occurred due to contaminated skin, clothing, or shoes, contamination of the family car, and visiting the workplace. In addition, exposures can occur due to chemicals (primarily solvents which can be present in pesticide formulations) in the exhaled breath of a worker, or due to contaminated breast milk of a working mother.
Some extremely severe acute poisonings have occurred when agricultural workers have brought empty pesticide containers or pesticide-contaminated materials into the home where children have played with them. Reports in the medical literature describe numerous preventable illnesses and deaths from pesticide-contaminated equipment. A two-year-old boy died after playing near flattened pesticide storage drums contaminated with the pesticide toxaphene. A brother and sister died after playing in a swing that they made from a burlap sack contaminated with the organophosphate parathion. The four-year-old son of a farmer played with a bag of parathion stored in a barn and was admitted to the hospital near death. A one-and-a-half-year-old girl was poisoned by demeton when her father, a crop sprayer, came home with contaminated shoes. He cleaned the shoes with paper towels, placed the towels in a wastebasket and left the shoes in the bathroom. The child contacted either the towels or the shoes and became unconscious. After treatment for organophosphate poisoning, she recovered.
". . . Not only were the family members who worked in the field poisoned, but their little toddler was also exposed when one of the parents picked him up after coming home from work. Three years later, the child is still experiencing severe skin problems."
-- Vikki Flores, Farm Worker Health and Safety Project at Texas Rural Legal Aid (Public Meeting in McAllen, TX, April 25, 1996)
Clothing contaminated with pesticides can be an important route of exposure for children of farmworkers. Agricultural workers who spray pesticides or whose clothing brushes against contaminated vegetation may return home with these materials on their clothes. Hugging children or playing with them immediately after coming home is almost an instinct to most parents. Parents are unlikely to defer greeting their children until after they have showered and changed their clothes. However, hugging a child or holding a child may expose that child to pesticides. Direct contact with contaminated clothing on bare skin can be a route of exposure to children. A California survey of pesticide-exposed workers revealed that only 20 percent reported showering or changing clothes after work, and only half reported having received training about how to handle pesticides. Wearing pesticide-contaminated clothing and shoes into the family car and into the home can also contaminate the upholstery of the car, the carpets, and other surfaces inside the home.
In addition to contributing to concentrations of pesticides in house dust, residues may be a problem when clothes are washed. Numerous studies have identified spread of pesticide contamination to uncontaminated clothing laundered or stored with work clothing. Organophosphate and organochlorine insecticides have been identified as persisting on clothing, with greater persistence if clothing is washed with cold or warm water rather than hot. Residues of both organochlorine and organophosphate insecticides have also been transferred to clean fabrics washed in the same load. One study found that even three washings were not sufficient to remove all the residues of the three pesticides studied. A Nebraska study on methyl parathion indicates that less than 20 percent was removed by one laundering. After 10 launderings, 34 percent of the original pesticide remained in the fabric. The level of residue remaining was enough to kill insects, and to represent a health hazard to humans.
Three surveys of the families of pesticide applicators or farmers revealed that 40–90 percent of families report separating work clothes from uncontaminated clothes; however only 25–50 percent reported using hot water washes, and most did not report cleaning the washing machine after use or washing contaminated clothing promptly. In addition, only 6 percent of wives reported wearing rubber gloves when handling the work clothing. No similar surveys have been done on farmworker populations, though anecdotal reports indicate that migrant farmworkers often wear the same clothes repeatedly even though they may be contaminated. Migrant farmworkers often wash their clothes at laundromats where they pay by the load and frequently wash the family's clothes together; in farm labor camps, clothes are often hand washed in buckets and line dried adjacent to fields where they can be re-contaminated by pesticide drift.
In the Worker Protection Standard promulgated by U.S. EPA, the Agency does not hold employers responsible for laundering "normal work attire." The Agency admits "Although it would be prudent for employers to clean…pesticide-contaminated work clothing for their employees, it is not a requirement of this final rule." If U.S. EPA does not act to limit "take-home" exposure from contaminated clothing, then it must consider these exposures in any evaluation of cumulative risk to children from pesticides.
Breast milk can be considered a "take-home" exposure to a nursing infant. Mothers who are working in the fields and are exposed to pesticides can accumulate residues of some of these chemicals in their breast milk. The organochlorine pesticides such as DDT have long been reported to concentrate in breast milk. The residues are highest among non-white women and while nursing the first child. The pesticide metabolites found most frequently in breast milk in one study of 942 women were p,p'-DDE (100 percent), oxychlordane (84 percent), trans-nonachlor (77 percent), heptachlor epoxide (74 percent) and beta-HCH, an isomer of lindane (27 percent). Although the widespread presence of these persistent contaminants in breast milk is worrisome, the levels are gradually decreasing now that most of these chemicals are no longer used in the United States. Most experts agree that breast feeding is still the most healthy way to raise a child.,  In addition to the persistent organochlorine pesticides, some volatile organic solvents that can be used as "inert" ingredients in pesticides have been detected in breast milk. Many pesticides have never been assessed to see whether or not they are present in breast milk. Pesticide exposures through breast milk should be better evaluated in order to protect nursing infants from pesticide exposures during breastfeeding.
Agricultural Pesticide Use in the Home: Methyl Parathion
In 1996, a major environmental incident came to public attention. Thousands of homes in at least seven states were sprayed by unlicensed exterminators using the highly poisonous organophosphate pesticide methyl parathion. This pesticide is not licensed for indoor use, but is legal for use in agriculture, and is particularly common in cotton production. While this pesticide breaks down fairly rapidly in soil, it is persistent in indoor environments protected from the weathering effects of sun and soil microbes.
Due to lax enforcement, it was not difficult for individuals to purchase this farm pesticide and use it repeatedly in people's homes, day care centers, schools, and other buildings. Methyl parathion is highly effective against roaches and other household pests and very inexpensive, making it particularly attractive to low-income people, the main victims of the illegal spraying. The sprayers themselves were illiterate and claimed not to understand the health risks of what they were doing. Episodes of methyl parathion use in the home were reported to U.S. EPA for years, but steps were never taken to prevent recurrence of the problem. The government could not even persuade the pesticide manufacturer to put a strong odorant into the pesticide to discourage people from using it indoors. Finally, the 1995 outbreak, which was estimated to cost taxpayers over $100 million in clean-up costs, got national press attention. In the aftermath of this environmental disaster, more than two thousand people were relocated from their homes, and more than 700 homes and businesses required extensive decontamination.
Numerous illnesses were reported in connection with these sprayings, particularly among young children and the elderly, and at least a half dozen deaths occurred shortly after pesticide applications to people's homes. Two girls, ages 4 and 11, are known to have died as a result of a previous episode of methyl parathion spraying indoors. Yet most local health care workers were not thinking about pesticide poisoning, so blood tests that would have made the diagnosis were rarely done on sick children. As a result, there are numerous reports of gastrointestinal symptoms, respiratory problems, and organ failure in the sprayed households, but no way to prove in hindsight that these symptoms and deaths were related to the pesticide. If it is this difficult to link acute health effects to recent pesticide exposures, it is even harder to show an association between lower level exposures and such common symptoms as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and difficulty breathing -- or with cancers and reproductive problems years later.
Illegal use of agricultural pesticides in the home is probably not uncommon, but most incidents are isolated or sporadic so they do not get widespread attention. Most episodes probably escape notice altogether. Yet use of these highly toxic pesticides indoors is a major risk to children. Farmers and farmworkers have ready access to agricultural pesticides, and are therefore particularly likely to use them to control indoor pest problems.
Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter
NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs
- Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
- Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
- NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.
- A new class of antibiotics — an exciting discovery but no substitute for antimicrobial stewardship
- posted by Carmen Cordova, 1/13/15
- New Year: NRDC Still Fighting for the Safety of our Pets and Kids
- posted by Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, 1/5/15
- More Fracking Fumes: Studies Repeatedly Find Unsafe Levels of Air Pollution Near Fracking Sites
- posted by Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, 12/16/14