Surili Sutaria Patel2017 is the Year of Climate Change and Health, a 12-month APHA-led initiative with monthly themes meant to raise awareness of and mobilize action on the health impacts of climate change. July is Agriculture, Food Safety and Security month. Here, APHA’s Surili Sutaria Patel, MS, senior program manager for environmental health with the Center for Public Health Policy, introduces the theme with a discussion of the human cost of climate change in our food supply chain. To learn more about this issue and other related topics, please visit: https://apha.org/topics-and-issues/climate-change/agriculture.

When we think of the impacts of climate change on agriculture, we might picture poor crop yields due to changes in precipitation, more frequent and severe weather events and increasing competition from weeds, pests and disease. The dilemma is greater than the food we harvest and eat, though.

We must consider the human element that makes the farm-to-fork phenomenon happen. Farmers, farmworkers, ranchers, migrant workers and other agricultural workers serve as a crucial link in the food supply chain. Yet they are unnecessarily exposed to health and safety risks and disproportionately burdened by extreme heat, pesticide exposures and other climate change-related hazards.

Extreme heat – illness and death among workers

Higher temperatures and more frequent periods of heat may result in more cases of heat-related illness (heat stroke and heat exhaustion) and fatigue for farm and animal production workers. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health:

• Farmworkers are at increased risk for heat injury and illness due to the nature of farm work: they work outdoors in direct sunlight, humidity levels are often higher in the fields, they generate large amounts of body heat and they often use heavy work clothing and equipment.
• Heat stress occurs when body heat builds up from both external and internal sources. This condition can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, neurological impairment, multiorgan failure and death.
• A study published in 2008 found that, in the previous 15-year period, 423 workers in agriculture and non-agricultural industries died from heat exposure. Results indicated that 67 percent of those fatalities were crop workers employed in the crop production or support activities for crop production sectors.
• In a study conducted with 300 farmworkers in North Carolina, 94 percent of respondents reported that they work in extreme heat, and 40 percent reported having had symptoms of heat illness.
• An added danger for farmworkers is that pesticides are absorbed through hot, sweaty skin more quickly than through cool, dry skin.

Often times, heat stress can be avoided by a few simple steps. Workers should discontinue strenuous activities, drink enough water and seek shade. Unfortunately, these obvious measures are not as attainable to the farmworker, whose employer requires him or her to remain in the field working.

Pesticide exposure and chemical-related illness
Pesticides – chemicals designed to destroy or prevent unwanted growth or infestation – are by nature harmful to our health. Farmworkers are exposed to pesticides at their greatest concentrations and strengths and suffer from more pesticide-related health problems than those in any other occupation in the US, according to Farmworker Justice.

Pesticides pose risks in two major ways:
1. Acute (immediate): rash, eye irritation, dizziness, nausea and vomiting and headaches. More serious acute effects include difficulty breathing, seizures, loss of consciousness and death.
2. Chronic (long-term): cancer, neurological disorders, hormonal and reproductive health problems, birth defects and infertility.

Due to climate change, the rates of insects and fungal growth will rise and even spread to new geographic locations. This will lead to more pesticide use and resulting illnesses and death. And because of the increasing temperatures, pesticides – which are absorbed through hot, sweaty skin more quickly than through cool, dry skin – pose an even greater threat. But direct contact is not the only way in which pesticides can affect health.

When spayed, pesticides can drift to other locations outside of the agricultural plot – such as to nearby schools, playgrounds, yards, pools, laundry on clothes lines, skin/clothes, etc. No matter how careful the sprayer is, environmental conditions and the light weight of the chemicals create the perfect condition for “pesticide drift.” When pesticides land on clothes, hair or skin, farmworkers can unknowingly expose their families to the dangerous chemicals.

Worker Injustice
Farmworkers’ healthcare and medical expenses are not necessarily covered by their employers when they become ill on the job or sustain a job-related injury. States are responsible for their own worker protection laws. It is common to receive medical benefits and recover a portion of lost wages if a workers’ compensation claim is filed. Farmworkers often neglect to complain about health and safety concerns, however, for fear of employer retaliation.

The nature of agricultural work is physically demanding and can involve frequent mobility to find jobs; a lack of quality housing; poor access to community, health and legal services; poverty; inadequate training; language problems; unfamiliarity with US laws and more that serve as barriers to physical and mental health.

According to Farmworker Justice, “Farmworkers comprise one of the most vulnerable populations working and living in the US because they experience multiple social and economic disadvantages that negatively impact their health. They work in low paying jobs, lack formal educational attainment and experience poor job security, unstable family relationships and discrimination.”

We rarely consider the human cost of our food supply chain, but it does exist and can be high. Stay tuned to learn more about this important topic during July Agriculture, Food Safety and Security month.