Marielena Vega has worked in Treasure Valley agriculture fields since she was 15 years old. She worked alongside her mother and other family members as a teenager because there was no one to care for her at home.
She recalled working with mostly women as they harvested hops and corn. She remembers seeing other daughters working alongside their mothers and women working alongside their spouses. She said her mother, who was a farmworker for many years, often comments on how even more of the work is now being done by women.
“A lot of the jobs that men used to do in the fields, like operating machinery like tractors, are now being done by women,” Vega said.
Vega now works for Vision 2C, a farmworker advocacy group in Canyon County.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2018 women made up 25% of farmworkers nationwide, up from 19% in 2010.
The increase in the number of women working in the fields is a good thing, said Lisa Meierotto, a Boise State University researcher who helped publish a recent study about the well-being of Latina farmworkers in western Idaho.
One of the study’s goals was to raise awareness about the experiences of Latina farmworkers and better understand the people who are involved in feeding the country, said Rebecca Som Castellano, another researcher on the study.
The study analyzed the unique challenges that Latinas face in farm work. One of those challenges is the persistence of pesticide exposure in the day-to-day lives of farmworkers.
To better understand the exposure, BSU researchers collected 44 urine samples from Latina farmworkers, two samples per worker. The samples were taken both during “non-spray season” from Jan. 1 to April 15, 2019, and during “spray season” from April 15 to June 30, 2019. The samples were analyzed by the New York Department of Health.
The analysis found that the highest concentrations of malondialdehyde, also known as MDA, a metabolite common in insecticide, was found in the samples during spray season from the women who said their jobs were to apply pesticides.
There is not enough extensive research about what metabolite exposure looks like long-term, said Christina Stucker-Gassi, a program coordinator for the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides.
She said there has been biological monitoring in countries outside of the U.S. Biological monitoring is an analysis of chemical exposures made through measuring the chemical in a biological sample like urine or blood.
A study published in 2017 on the impacts of pesticide exposure, particularly on the impacts from exposure to concentrates of MDA, have found long-term exposure can be linked to lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, leukemia, hematologic malignancy, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, brain tumor and skin cancer. The results were based on a survey of 84 male farmers in South Korea who on average spent about 10 days a year for 24 years spraying pesticides.
Pesticide exposure also impacts cognitive ability and exercise performance of children.
“By working in these fields that have been treated by pesticides on a regular basis, we are exposing this workforce to toxins that the rest of us don’t experience at those levels,” said Cynthia Curl, another researcher who worked on the Latina farmworker study.
In her experience, Vega said people who worked in fields sprayed by pesticides were often not aware of how long ago the fields were sprayed or to which chemicals they were being exposed.
“We can’t tell the level of exposure we have gotten,” Vega said. “No one can determine how long we have been exposed. We don’t know how many types of chemicals or pesticides we have been working with and you don’t know who out of the group may have been exposed.”
Farmworkers are often not aware of where they need to pick up the clothing required when working on a field that had been sprayed or where to pick up gloves, Vega said.
The BSU study found that women who had jobs applying pesticides often did not receive the proper training around pesticide application or the proper protective clothing.
Som Castellano said during interviews with the researchers, one Latina farmworker who had worked in agriculture for a long time said she noticed increased use of pesticides from when she started working.
Other women told researchers about not being given information about what was being sprayed and when, and women living in homes adjacent to crop fields were often not notified before pesticides were being sprayed there. Another group of women said there was a lack of signage at the fields they worked on that indicate when a pesticide was sprayed.
These are requirements for agriculture employers, as part of the Worker Protection Standard, a set of regulations under the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at protecting the more than 2 million agriculture workers and their families from some of the hazards of farm work.
The women from the study who did not receive training per the Worker Protection Standard may still be licensed from the state, through the Idaho State Department of Agriculture licensing program. Workers who handle pesticides must be trained through the Worker Protection Standard regulations to legally apply pesticides, even if they are licensed by the state. Workers who have not received training and are not licensed by the state can’t legally apply pesticides.
The regulations place the responsibility to get workers trained on their employer. If the workers are applying pesticides, there is additional training than what other workers receive. Pesticide application also requires the use of personal protective equipment, so workers must be trained on using PPE, and if bodysuits are necessary, they must be fit tested by someone trained to do that.
“There are a lot of protections in (the Worker Protection Standard), but they are just not being followed,” said Stucker-Gassi.
The Idaho State Department of Agriculture oversees thousands of farms in the state and visits hundreds each year for inspections, Curl said. This means she isn’t surprised that some farms and Worker Protection Standard violations fall through the cracks.
The enforcement challenge leaves workers in a difficult position, Stucker-Gassi said, and unfortunately they may have to carry the burden of protecting themselves.
In a statement, the Department of Agriculture said it investigates any alleged pesticide misuse or alleged violations of the Worker Protection Standard and it strongly encourages reporting of alleged misuse of pesticides or violations of the standards.
The department had two alleged cases of human exposure that involved workers in fiscal year 2020.
The researchers talked to women who have taken measures into their own hands, ensuring they only work in long-sleeve shirts and have bandannas for their mouths.
Stucker-Gassi said workers should also try to reduce “take-home exposure,” meaning unintentionally taking home pesticide residue, exposing their families.
This means taking off their work clothes before entering their homes, washing possible pesticide-exposed clothes separately from other clothes. Though these tasks are more difficult than they seem, Vega said.
“Depending on where you go eat during work, sometimes you don’t have time to wash your hands and you don’t know if the pesticides are something that will wash off with soap and water,” she said. “You don’t know if you are ingesting pesticides.”
When her family worked in the fields, Vega recalls that all of the clothing and linens in her home were all washed in the same washing machine alongside clothing worn in the field. She now recommends against that, noting, “We don’t know if it is something that will leave residue in the washing machine.”
With her farm working past and many of her family still working in the fields, Vega’s work with Vision 2C is important to her.
The group and many others, including Stucker-Gassi, have been advocating for more state protections for farmworkers. A bill that would roll back some regulations for aerial applicators passed last legislative session, and the State Department of Agriculture has been hearing from stakeholders about how to implement the changes.
“We have been advocating for people to take (pesticide exposure) into consideration,” Vega said, adding that people are still unaware of many of the long-term effects of pesticides on women, on reproductive health and birth defects in babies.
Stucker-Gassi said she hopes for more follow-up from the Department of Agriculture when it comes to Worker Protection Standard complaints.