Study: Cultural Beliefs About Pesticides Put Mexican Farm Workers At Risk

Nov. 4, 2009
Mexican immigrant farm laborers may face an increased risk of exposure to harmful pesticides due to their cultural perceptions, suggests a study appearing in a supplemental issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Lead author Shedra Amy Snipes, Ph.D., and colleagues followed 99 Mexican farm workers in Washington State from March 2005 to February 2006.

“For one thing, Mexican immigrant farm workers’ knowledge of, and beliefs about, pesticides differ from traditional occupational health definitions, such as those of the Environmental Protection Agency,” Snipes said.

EPA defines pesticides as any substance intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest. Yet Snipes explained that immigrant farm workers tell her that pesticides are substances “that smell badly and are very strong.”

“Our dominant finding was that farm workers consider dry pesticide residues, which they call ‘powder,’ to be relatively harmless, compared with sprays and liquids, which are foul smelling and, therefore, considered harmful,” said Snipes, who was at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center when the study took place. She currently is a National Cancer Institute fellow at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center.

Snipes and her colleagues also learned that farm workers often decline the use of safety gear to help protect themselves against pesticides. They refuse because it slows them down, reducing their yield, which translates into less pay to take home for their families. When farm workers receive an hourly wage, however, then they wear safety gear.

Farm workers also delay showering and decontamination at the end of the hot day in the fields because their joints aches and they believe the effects of the water on their overheated bodies could be harmful, researchers added.

Thomas Arcury, Ph.D., director of the Center for Worker Health at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, says the study “reinforces the calls of many occupational health and social justice advocates for the enforcement of existing pesticide safety regulations in agriculture – and for these regulations to be expanded to reflect the work experiences of immigrant workers.”

According to Snipes, farmers apply more than 60 million pounds of pesticides to agricultural crops annually.

“This means significant human exposure to illness-inducing and potentially cancer-causing agents as a sheer factor of one’s work. Considering the cultural perspectives of immigrant workers is critical if we are to create sensitive and effective ways to prevent harmful exposure among these individuals,” she said.

The American Journal of Public Health is the monthly journal of the American Public Health Association. Visit for more information.

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