SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

Precautions urged to protect children of farm workers from pesticides

Monday, April 26, 2004

By KATHY GEORGE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

 

When a new season of spraying begins next week in the sunny apple and pear orchards of the

Yakima Valley, farm workers will again face the risk of pesticide poisoning.

 

But their children might be safer.

 

Even as farm workers fight in court for stronger government protection from pesticides,

scientists from Seattle are advising the workers' families to start protecting themselves.

 

The 10-year project, based on studies showing that toxic dust finds its way from farm fields

into the homes and bodies of children, is designed to "break the pathway" by changing what

workers do.

 

"We did not try to eliminate pesticides, because we know that would alienate groups," Gloria Coronado

of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center said yesterday at a conference on community-based

solutions for environmental health and justice.

 

Rather, even as Washington farm workers sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleging

that its regulations fail to account for child health risks, the cancer center's federally funded project

is asking farm workers to change their own behavior in order to protect children from poisonous

pesticide residue.

 

The key messages to workers, Coronado said at the conference, are to take showers before hugging

their children, to remove their hats and shoes before coming inside their homes, to clean up homes

and cars regularly and to keep children's hands and toys washed.

 

Patti Goldman, a lawyer for Earthjustice who sued the EPA on behalf of farm workers exposed to

the pesticides phosmet and azinphosmethyl, said she supports tackling the problem at the workers'

end while trying to restrict pesticide use at the front end. The suit, filed in January, is pending in

U.S. District Court in Seattle.

 

"What you have is people who are bearing the brunt of not having power," so self-help is a

good idea, she said.

 

Yakima Valley growers insist that pesticides are safe if used properly, and they see the whole

pesticide issue as "not very important," Coronado said.

 

At the same time, farm workers told scientists that although protective equipment is rarely provided

and regulations are not enforced, they are unlikely to complain. "Some of them said that they were

afraid of losing their jobs," she said.

 

"The challenge that we came across was finding common ground" among growers, their predominantly

Hispanic employees, and the government regulators charged with protecting the workers' health, she said.

 

The Fred Hutchinson center and the University of Washington began the project five years ago,

initially focusing on establishing a scientific connection between the pesticides used on farms

and the toxins detected in the bodies of farm workers and their families.

 

In a groundbreaking study of 218 farm worker families published in 2002, Coronado and other

scientists reported a close connection between the pesticide dust found in the workers' vehicles

and toxic dust collected from children's play areas.

 

The study also found toxic compounds from pesticides in the bodies of 92 percent of the workers

tested and in 88 percent of the children tested, concluding that pesticide spraying in the fields is reaching

the young children of workers.

 

The study mainly involved a notoriously toxic pesticide called azinphosmethyl, or AZM. From May to

July, Washington growers will spray hundreds of thousands of pounds of AZM on their crops.

 

The project scientists just finished collecting data on how the self-help efforts are working, and if they

prove to work well, the goal is to spread the word more broadly in the Yakima Valley and beyond,

Coronado said.