Pesticide Exposure and Risk Perceptions among Men and Women Latinx Farmworkers in Idaho
This summary report provides details about the researchers key takeaways, methods, results, conclusions, and recommendations.
- Many different pesticides were found in urine samples collected from Latinx farmworkers in Idaho
- Barriers to wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) include heat and believing it is not important, particularly among men
- Farmworkers said they were worried about pesticide drift and lack of notification when pesticides are sprayed on nearby farms
- Farmworkers want more interactive and in-person safety trainings
- Current regulations may not address farmworkers’ concerns, even at farms that meet all legal requirements
Carly Hyland, PhD, MS
School of Public Health, UC Berkeley / UC Agriculture and Natural Resources / School of Public and Population Health, Boise State University.
Lisa Meierotto, PhD, MA
School of Public Service, Boise State University.
Rebecca Som Castellano, PhD, MA
School of the Environment / Department of Sociology, Boise State University. firstname.lastname@example.org
Cynthia Curl, PhD, MS
School of Public and Population Health, Boise State University. email@example.com
Irene Ruiz, MA
Idaho Organization of Resource Councils.
Latinx farmworkers represent over 80% of the agricultural workforce in the United States. Previous studies have shown that farmworkers have high levels of exposure to pesticides. However, most of those studies have focused on men. Women are becoming more visible in agriculture and it is important to understand how pesticides affect women farmworkers. We conducted a study from April-July 2022 with Latinx farmworkers in Southwestern Idaho. In this study, we measured pesticide levels in urine samples collected from farmworkers. Every participant’s urine tested positive for at least one pesticide. The farmworkers in this study expressed concerns about not being notified about pesticide spraying, particularly on nearby farms. They also wanted more hands-on and in- person pesticide safety training.
Measure levels of pesticides in samples of farmworkers’ urine.
Understand farmworkers’ thoughts about the risks and benefits of pesticides, the amount of control they feel they have to protect themselves from pesticides, and the steps they take to protect themselves.
Pesticide Exposure Assessment
We had two study visits with each participant, within a seven-day period. During each visit, the participant answered a questionnaire and gave a urine sample. After the second visit, we combined the two urine samples to estimate their exposure over one full week. We tested for levels of herbicides, pyrethroid insecticides, and organophosphate (OP) insecticides, or their breakdown products.
Participants completed a questionnaire at the two different study visits. The first questionnaire was longer and included questions about their demographic information, work history, what types of crops they worked with, and PPE use. We also asked about pesticide protective behaviors (PPBs), which are behaviors farmworkers can take to reduce their pesticide exposure. For example, we asked questions such as how often they wash their hands with soap and water during work. We also asked participants about how much control they believe they have to reduce harmful impacts of pesticides and who they believe is responsible for protecting farmworkers from pesticides.
Participants completed a short follow-up questionnaire at the second study visit. This focused on whether pesticides had been applied at the field where they work, and whether they used PPE while working in the last three days.
Eighteen (18) participants completed a longer interview. This included 11 women and 7 men. These interviews allowed participants to talk in more detail about their experiences with and beliefs about pesticides. For example, we asked their thoughts about the risks and benefits of pesticides and their experiences working in agriculture. The interviews were around 45-60 minutes long.
Indicators of Compliance with WPS
“I remember we were harvesting and a little plane passed by very close by fumigating another field next to us. So, I don’t know if it’s something that won’t hurt us or if they don’t care. I don’t know. And they say that when they put chemicals on a field, they put a sign up or something like that. When they put that sign up, they don’t have us go in there, but the sprayers, the tractors pass close by and that doesn’t – that’s what happens, they don’t let us know that much. They don’t care that much about letting us know.”Participant Comment
Forty-five participants (72.6%) reported having attended pesticide safety training, which is required by the WPS for all agricultural workers. However, the quality of this training was a concern to some of the participants. Many participants reported receiving the training from a video. While this method of training meets legal requirements, participants said these videos were not engaging or effective. Participants wanted in-person training, which would be more engaging and allow them to ask questions.
Participants also voiced concerns, particularly in the interviews, about not knowing when pesticides are sprayed at the field where they work, particularly in the open-ended interviews. When participants were notified about pesticide applications, the most common way they were notified was being told by a supervisor (80.7%), and signs being posted in the field in English (64.5%), Spanish (50.0%), or both English and Spanish (45.2%). Participants were also concerned about pesticides drifting from nearby farms to where they are working.
“They could communicate a bit more between themselves and communicate with us as workers…the workers of the other farmer should let the others know and say, ‘Hey your people are there, so get out.’ Because sometimes you get there and you smell it… sometimes you’re in the field, but the neighbor is spraying. They aren’t spraying in your work site, but someone else is spraying and it makes it to you.”Participant Comment
“There were four or five of us who were coming out of the wheat, and you can’t see us. The wheat is high…the plane went by and I just saw the downfall, and I could feel the chemicals fell on me.”Participant Comment
“And then one year…when we were working on the beets… and we were in the fields and we saw the plane go by like that and he just passed and sprayed over us and we dropped in the field, and I had my little boy, he was three years old, and he saw it and he fell on the row of the beets and he was crawling and everyone got sprayed on the back with white stuff on them. We all got sprayed. But I guess – at that time, nobody reported anything. So, we just changed our clothes and keep on going.”Participant Comment
Perceived Risk of Herbicides
While herbicides are not inherently less dangerous than other pesticides, participants reported they felt them to be less dangerous. They also said they were told that they don’t need the same safety precautions when using herbicides. One participant reported that they do not have a pesticide applicator license and they do not consider themselves to be a pesticide applicator because they only spray herbicides. Some of the participants reported that they do not wear PPE while working with herbicides. These findings may contribute to the higher levels of herbicides we found among pesticide applicators compared with non-applicators. These beliefs also conflict with WPS, which indicates that farmworkers should follow the guidelines on each specific pesticide product. The WPS does not indicate that herbicides are inherently safer.
Unique Experiences of Women
We found that women worked fewer hours than men and were more likely to wear most types of PPE, but more women reported having experienced an acute pesticide poisoning (APP). While there is a need for more studies, we have some potential hypotheses for this trend. First, the wide range of different jobs by gender could impact exposure to pesticides. For example, men in our study were more likely to drive trucks or operate heavy machinery. These activities may have a lower potential for pesticide exposure compared to tasks that were more common among women, such as weeding and thinning crops. Second, multiple women described that they had been poisoned from aerial pesticide spraying. It is possible that women are more likely to work with crops that are sprayed aerially. This might increase the risk for APP if proper precautions are not followed. Third, women may be more susceptible to pesticides than men due to their biological makeup. Finally, there may be differences in access to pesticide safety training. It is also possible that women do not have proper access to PPE that fits them. A combination of these factors may impact women’s exposure to pesticides and should be examined in larger studies.
Climate Change and Heat
“What worries me most is that we are going to be poisoned from pesticides…we don’t wear masks because of the temperatures and the sun.”Participant Comment
We found that farmworkers are concerned about climate change-related hazards. Participants were particularly concerned about working in extreme heat. They expressed that they are unable to work in extreme heat and have no options to protect themselves because they needed to get paid. Some said they did not use PPE because of the heat. This is concerning because PPE is one of the ways farmworkers can protect themselves from pesticides. Participants also felt that more pesticides were used in the 2022 agricultural season due to abnormally cool temperatures and increased precipitation that delayed planting.
“To gain time, since it’s a bit slow, they put more chemicals…There have been years where the weather is good, and you can plant well…and they don’t apply pesticides as often. I don’t know how much they apply, but they are applying more [pesticides].”Participant Comment
Some participants worked in both Oregon and Idaho and reported that they got more breaks while working in hot weather in Oregon. For example, one participant said “The only thing that I know is that the laws in Oregon are a bit more strict. What I understand is that in Oregon, they give you two 10 or 15 minute breaks by law, plus lunch. I think that here in Idaho, the break isn’t required, beside lunch. And in Oregon – I think after 100 degrees, you can’t work.”
“The sun does affect us…when it’s about noon, you don’t want to be there anymore because the sun is getting higher and the temperature is increasing and you can’t take it. But you have to be there working your hours because of your needs.”Participant Comment