Risky contact

Pesticides cause serious health effects among US farm workers

Published: Thursday 31 March 2005

one in five us farm workers regularly handling organophosphate (op) and carbamate (cb) pesticides suffers serious health effects such as nausea, headaches, fatigue and seizures, according to a report released in mid-February. These pesticides are neurotoxins that significantly inhibit production of cholinesterase -- an enzyme essential for normal functioning of the nervous system. Called Messages from Monitoring, the report is based on data collected over a year under a Washington State programme.

Low levels of cholinesterase can also cause memory loss, paralysis and death. The children of workers living on the farms are also at risk. "Farm workers' children have nerve poisons flowing through their bodies. If that's not a public health crisis demanding immediate action, I don't know what is," says Carol Dansereau, director of the Farm Worker Pesticide Project, a non-profit organisation that conducted the study.

Under the programme, workers received "baseline" blood tests prior to the pesticide spraying season to identify normal levels of cholinesterase. They then received monthly follow-up tests when they met or exceeded the 50-hour per month handling threshold.

Over the course of the spray season, 123 (21 per cent) pesticide handlers out of 580 tested had cholinesterase depressions of more than 20 per cent. Of these, 26 (over 4 per cent of the 580 workers) had cholinesterase levels below 30 per cent, necessitating their removal from pesticide spraying to other farm jobs as per the state rules. The majority of handlers needing removal for cholinesterase depressions used a mixture of carbaryl and an op insecticide (chlorpyrifos or azinphos methyl).

The report said the programme tested only pesticide handlers. But there is growing evidence of pesticide exposure among field workers and their families. It calls on the government to end the use of the most risky pesticides, including azinphos methyl, chlorpyrifos and other highly toxic ops and cbs

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