Since its beginnings, America’s robust agricultural sector has fueled economic prosperity and demographic development, distinguishing the US as one of the world’s foremost agricultural producers. However, achieving this status has come at a steep price for those directly involved in growing and harvesting the crops that feed the nation.
Although farmworkers have been recognized as essential workers, they’re among the least protected professional groups, incurring disproportionately higher health risks and being exposed to large amounts of toxic agrochemicals.
With recent research indicating that unsustainable agricultural practices negatively affect workers’ health and impact the soil’s ability to remain productive over the long term, the shift to environmentally-sound strategies is slowly gaining ground among US farm owners.
Overreliance on Pest-Control Chemicals Breeds Toxic Hazards
Ensuring consistent crop yields is largely dependent on chemicals that kill pests and weeds. However, many pesticides and herbicides have a potency that far exceeds the fatality threshold for pests and can cause significant injuries in humans.
A notable and often overlooked fact is that 83% of US farmworkers are Hispanic, with states like California, Washington, Florida, and Oregon having some of the largest shares of minority agricultural laborers (60.7% – 80.3%).
The vast majority of US pesticide use (over 90%) takes place in the agricultural sector, leaving farmworkers and their communities susceptible to higher rates of both direct and chronic exposure. Even more concerning is the fact that the EPA allows farm operators to use pest-control chemicals whose safety has been called into question internationally.
Paraquat (paraquat dichloride) is the main ingredient in popular herbicides like Gramoxone and Firestone, gaining widespread use over the past decade due to weeds developing higher resilience to conventional agrochemicals. Despite its formidable qualities as a non-selective weed killer, paraquat has been banned in over 67 countries worldwide, including China, Brazil, and the EU, due to increasing clinical evidence of its links to Parkinson’s disease.
US Farmworker’s Exposure Risks
Every year, over 17 million pounds of paraquat are sprayed on US crops. California applies the lion’s share (1.3 million pounds/year), primarily in the majority-Hispanic agricultural counties of the Central Valley.
The long-term effects of paraquat exposure in California’s farming communities have been the subject of extensive medical research, with several studies uncovering concerning links to higher Parkinson’s prevalence, pregnancy-related issues, as well as breast and thyroid cancer. Coincidentally, the Golden State also has the highest count of Parkinson’s diagnoses in the US (106,710).
Off-target pesticide drift is the most common source of exposure for agricultural farmworkers and their communities, mainly due to owners’ disregard for worker protection standards. Even though owners are supposed to provide safety training and adequate protective equipment, notify workers about scheduled paraquat applications and prevent field access until exposure risks subside, they rarely follow regulations given the low risk of penalties from shorthanded and underfunded enforcement agencies.
Despite the risks and inadequate safety protections, farmworkers seldom voice their discontent, putting up with unsafe working conditions rather than jeopardizing their employment. The implications are even more concerning for vulnerable pregnant women, who may unknowingly expose unborn infants to paraquat in-utero during spring months when crop planting resumes.
Paraquat Manufacturing Companies Should Transition to Safer Green Strategies
While the insufficient protection standards and lacking regulatory enforcement capabilities leave US agricultural workers exposed and at risk, the industry itself has to contend with the unsustainable prospects of its reliance on synthetic pesticides.
As global temperatures rise and pests proliferate across wider ranges, the higher use of toxic agrochemicals inadvertently breeds more resilient species, affects soil quality, and increases the agricultural industry’s carbon footprint.
Considering climate change’s protracted effects, the global market’s continuously increasing demand for foodstuffs, and the high health cost of toxic pest-control chemicals, shifting to eco-environmentally-conscious strategies will be required to ensure the agricultural sector’s longevity and sustainability.
Understandably, national regulators and farmers worry that banning toxic pesticides will negatively impact yields and earnings. While these are valid concerns, a recent study indicates that agriculture without paraquat is feasible without loss of productivity.
Farmers seeking economically-viable and eco-friendly strategies should consider inexpensive traditional approaches to pest control, including thermal weeding, living mulches, controlled livestock grazing, rotating and diversifying crops, and using natural predators to reduce pest populations. Additionally, no-till farming and cover crops help maintain soil quality and prevent erosion while naturally controlling the spread of invasive weed strains.
For larger agricultural operations, Integrated Pest Management strategies provide targeted solutions that leverage modern advancements, including site-specific weed management using drone and sensor technology or autonomous robotic weeding systems. Although bioherbicides have also shown promise, their reduced potency and lack of availability make them less efficient solutions than their synthetic counterparts.
In 2022, the EPA vowed to reconsider its Trump-era decision to relicense paraquat until 2035 following legal backlash from environmental and workers’ rights groups. Earlier this year, the Agency proposed a rule to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure by increasing the Application Exclusion Zone to 100 feet, rectifying the former administration’s changes which reduced it to only 25 feet.
In the long run, phasing out and banning toxic pesticides will not only help reduce consumer anxieties and ensure crop quality, but it will also serve to organically protect vulnerable farmworkers and their communities simply by employing sustainable best practices.
Farmworkers who worked as a Paraquat sprayer, tank filler, chemical mixer, and herbicide applicator, and those living near farming communities who were exposed to Paraquat and developed Parkinson’s should file a Paraquat claim and get the compensation they deserve. Liable companies should be held responsible, especially since there are far better and greener technologies to protect American farmworkers and communities living nearby farms.
About the Author
Miguel Leyva is a case manager with Atraxia Law, helping farmworkers injured by unsafe pesticides gather and organize the required documentation attesting to their diagnosis to subsequently file a toxic exposure claim against liable entities.
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