Following the release of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, the public became aware of the environmental damage inflicted by toxic pesticides used in modern agriculture systems. However, pesticides are more than an environmental issue — they are a workers’ rights issue, too.
We need to look at the consequences of pesticide use through an intersectional lens to truly grasp the scope of its impact. The widespread use of synthetic pesticides is not only an environmental issue but an issue of social, economic and racial injustices. In the agriculture industry, the health of workers is compromised by companies’ focus on profits and efficiency as farmworkers are exposed to dangerous pesticides.
Pesticides, or substances used to kill unwanted insects, plants, and fungi, have been widely used in agriculture for centuries. Synthetic pesticides are man-made toxic chemicals applied to crop fields, which cause soil degradation, groundwater contamination and emission of greenhouse gases — among various other environmental effects. A report by Farmworker Justice estimates that 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year on crops, which exposes both ecosystems and vulnerable communities to harmful, carcinogenic toxins.
The negligence of the agriculture industry and leniency of pesticide regulations have contributed to significant health issues and human rights violations. Farmworkers and communities in agricultural regions are directly exposed to pesticides that cause acute poisoning and long-term chronic health problems including cancer, infertility and respiratory illnesses. Federal regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect workers from exposure to toxic pesticides have not been updated in more than 20 years, so employers continuously fail to offer adequate safety precautions, medical monitoring or even information regarding the hazards of pesticide use.
Not only are farmworkers exposed to the toxins, but their families are too. Workers inadvertently carry the pesticides into their homes on their clothing, and pesticides drift through the air into nearby homes and schools. As children are more vulnerable to toxins, pesticide use is linked to higher rates of birth defects, cancer and developmental complications among children.
The use of synthetic pesticides in agriculture contributes to a larger system of structural inequalities faced by low-income communities of color. The agriculture industry is dependent upon undocumented immigrants and low-income communities providing inexpensive labor, and as many farmworkers lack valid work authorization, they are less likely to report health and safety violations.
Employers take advantage of this lack of accountability by not adhering to pesticide regulations or providing health insurance. Pesticide labels detailing the hazards of pesticide use, proper safety equipment, and first aid instructions are only provided in English. As a result, non-English speaking workers — who make up a large percentage of farmworkers — lack equitable access to safety information that would allow them to protect themselves and their families.
The agriculture industry is an example of a modern colonial system built upon the exploitation of people of color and low-income families. The unregulated use of synthetic pesticides is a mechanism of this exploitation. The voices of marginalized communities have been muffled by the political and economic power of agricultural corporations, so the use of toxic pesticides continues to threaten the health and wellbeing of vulnerable populations.
The federal and state governments must update pesticide regulations and collaborate with nongovernmental organizations to provide resources that protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure. In the general public, we can utilize our voices by contacting local representatives and donating to farmworker organizations.