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Pesticide Exposure in Farm Worker Families

By Robin Arnette
October 2007

Arcury explained his findings involving farm worker families and pesticide exposure.
Arcury explained his findings involving farm worker families and pesticide exposure. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Even the front row seats at Rodbell A were filled nearly to capacity - sure sign of a popular event.
Even the front row seats at Rodbell A were filled nearly to capacity - sure sign of a popular event. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On September 6, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2923 and the NIEHS Diversity Council co-sponsored a seminar to celebrate Labor Day. Extramural Grantee Thomas A. Arcury, Ph.D., professor and director of Research in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, presented "Pesticide Exposure in Latino Farm Worker Families: Current Results and Ongoing Research." This was the third annual NIEHS Labor Day seminar, and it drew a large number of attendees from within the Institute, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP).

Bill Jirles, President of AFGE 2923, chose Arcury because of his past involvement in policy issues important to workers and their families. "We thought Tom was a stellar choice for a Labor Day speaker due to his research and work with farm workers as well as those who advocate on their behalf," Jirles said. "Labor Day is about equality, fairness and dignity for all workers, and farm workers demonstrate the ongoing struggle for these rights."

Arcury began his talk by describing the population at the heart of his work. In the United States farm workers are generally divided into two groups: migrant and seasonal. Migrant workers change residence, usually more than 75 miles, for agricultural employment. On the other hand, seasonal workers earn their income in agriculture in certain seasons, but do not necessarily travel to work in other locales.

According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, published by the U.S. Department of Labor, 42 percent of farm workers are migrants and 58 percent are seasonal, but these days the typical farm worker tends not to be American. Seventy-eight percent of the farm worker population is foreign-born with the majority of them coming from Mexico. Others are from Central America and Southeast Asia.

"Because half of all farm workers are undocumented," Arcury explained, "it raises lots of problems in terms of protecting their rights as workers and protecting them in terms of exposure." Since there weren't a lot of articles that dealt specifically with pesticide exposure and farm workers, Arcury and his collaborators developed two surveys, La Familia and Casa y Campos to find out more.

La Familia was carried out in 2001 in the mountains of North Carolina with 41 farm worker families participating in the study. Arcury and his colleagues went to the workers' homes and tested the floors, children's toys and the children's hands to see where the pesticides-both agricultural and residential-were coming from and where they were ending up. They found pesticides in 39 of the 41 households. "Ninety-five percent of households had pesticides on the floor, about 71 percent of the toys had pesticides, and with hands, it went to 55 percent," Arcury said. "Through our analysis, we show the pathway is that pesticides got on floors, then on toys and then on hands."

In 2004 Arcury and colleagues recruited 60 kids from farm worker households in Benson, N.C. for the Casa y Campos study. The team interviewed the mothers, collected urine samples from the children and measured 14 pesticide-specific metabolites. "One child had no detectable metabolites, three children had seven, but most had three or more metabolites in their system," Arcury said.

Although these studies have increased the knowledge about pesticide exposure in farm worker families, there is still much to do. Arcury and his colleagues demonstrate their commitment to policy by creating reports for state legislators and farm worker advocates, but they are also heavily involved in health education by producing and distributing videos and print materials on pesticide safety and speaking to migrant clinicians at conferences. Most of these health education materials may be found at Wake Forest's Department of Family & Community Medicine Web site ( Exit NIEHS.

Arcury is currently in the second year of an NIEHS community-based participatory research grant to study pesticide exposure among adult farm workers in eastern North Carolina. It is a collaborative project involving the North Carolina Farm Workers Project, Student Action with Farmworkers, Greene County Healthcare and the Columbus County Community Health Center.

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