Health Day, December 12, 2003
Pesticide Exposure High in Migrant Workers
Housing, proximity to fields, lack of safety guidelines seen as cause
FRIDAY, Dec. 12 (HealthDayNews) -- Migrant workers, often living in substandard
housing and near the fields where they work, are at high risk for overexposure to
pesticides, says a Wake Forest University study.
In a study of 41 families living in North Carolina and Virginia who had at least one
family member employed in harvesting tobacco, food or Christmas trees, researchers
found both agricultural and residential pesticides were present in 95 percent of the homes.
"These families have greater exposure than is typical of the U.S. population," says Sara Quandt,
a professor of public health at Wake Forest and co-author of the study, which appeared in the
Nov. 12 online edition of Environmental Health Perspectives.
An essay on the topic also appears in the Dec. 13 issue of The Lancet.
Quandt and her Wake Forest colleague, Thomas A. Acury, wiped childrens' hands,
their toys and the floors of the homes they studied. In addition, they took urine
samples from the families. They found traces of eight agricultural pesticides and
3 pesticides commonly found in homes. The latter, called residential pesticides,
are most often used for bug control, she says.
A number of factors put migrant workers at higher risk than the general population,
Quandt says. The workers tend to live near to the farms where they work, and sprayed
agricultural pesticides drift into the homes. Also, they carry the agricultural pesticides
on their clothing and skin into their homes.
Moreover, their houses "are frequently, though not always" in poor repair, she says.
Holes in the walls or floors and/or lack of screens mean that bugs have easy entry,
and cramped quarters with too much furniture and little storage space makes cleaning
difficult. To keep the bugs at bay, families tend to resort to strong residential pesticides,
and this is where education is needed.
"Pesticide safety education focuses on the workplace and on agricultural pesticides,
but not on the home," she says. "Federal requirements mandate that workers must
be trained, but the family is not required to be trained, and we need to develop
educational materials for the community to use themselves to protect their families."
Quandt says that the Worker Protection Standard mandated by the Environmental
Protection Agency a decade ago requires that migrant workers be instructed in
standard hygiene -- such as washing after work, keeping work clothes separate
from regular clothes, and recognizing the posters that must be hung where
pesticides are being used in fields.
What's also needed are guides to help families use less pesticides in their homes, Quandt says.
"Infestation should initially be controlled minimally," she says. "Fix leaky pipes,
because bugs are drawn to water, keep food locked up, repair screens. Then go
to sticky paper and traps. Pesticide use should be the last resort."
The agricultural pesticide residue the researchers found included organophosphates,
which are non-persistent pesticides, meaning that they break down in the outdoors.
Unfortunately, Quandt says, they don't break down when inside the house, so they
can linger on indoor surfaces for a long time.
Pesticide residues are associated with many problems, Quandt says, from
overt physical symptoms such as tearing and diarrhea to neurological problems,
including memory loss.
"We are concerned particularly about children," she says. The study only looked at
houses with children under 7 years of age.