Farm work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the US, in part due to pesticide exposure, and women’s share of the farming workforce is increasing. According to the USDA, in 2009 women made up 18.6% of farmworkers but in 2018, women accounted for 25.5% of the workforce. Ongoing concerns about farmworkers' exposure to pesticides have been documented in the September 2022 Report “Exposed and At Risk”.
The United States uses the second largest amount of pesticides out of all countries in the world; as of 2018, the US used over 400,000 tons of pesticides per year.
Farmworkers are exposed to higher amounts of pesticides than consumers, which in turn could lead to more negative health consequences – particularly for women farmworkers. Farmworkers can be exposed through handling pesticides, directly spraying the pesticides, coming in contact with pesticides residue while on the job, through pesticide drift, and pesticide residue can stay on clothing which can be carried into the home, risking the health of families as well.
What does pesticide exposure look like?
- In the short term, those exposed can experience: stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, blindness, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea and even death.
- Over the long term, chronic effects can include: cancer, birth defects, reproductive harm, neurological and developmental toxicity, and endocrine disruption.
Pesticide impacts on women:
In the list above, you will notice that a few of those long-term effects impact reproductive health, which is one of the key reasons pesticide exposure can cause additional harm to women.
A study examining pesticide related illnesses and injuries in farmworkers from 1998 – 2007 found that women farmworkers were twice as likely to experience an illness or injury related to pesticide exposure than men. With women’s share of the farm work force growing, it is even more pressing that we greatly reduce the amount of pesticides used in agriculture and eliminate the use of all highly hazardous pesticides.
According to the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), exposure to pesticides while pregnant can be particularly harmful; it could lead to miscarriages, premature births, and birth defects. Pesticide exposure can be even riskier in the first few weeks of pregnancy, potentially before a woman knows she is pregnant. AFOP recommends all women that are pregnant or trying to become pregnant take additional precautions and try to avoid pesticide exposure.
Pesticides add to the toxic chemical exposure all women face
An added risk to chemical exposure is how we interact with the world and what products we each come into contact with. Women tend to be exposed to more chemicals than men. Women still often carry out more of the household cleaning than men, resulting in women being exposed to more harsh cleaning chemicals.
Additionally, women tend to use more personal care products than men. The Environmental Working Group estimates women are exposed to 168 different chemical per day through personal care products; while men, on average, are exposed to 85 per day – this number does not factor in pesticide exposure or exposure to cleaning products. It is likely that the various toxic chemicals interact with each other to produce greater impacts, so when women are exposed to toxic chemicals in personal care products and then through work exposures, the risks are compounded.
Additionally, Women’s Voices for the Earth notes that some chemicals accumulate in fat, and women tend to have a higher body percentage of fat than men, which in some cases, leads to women having much higher levels of certain chemicals in their body. And, some chemicals build up in our bodies over time, so increased exposure in both the amount of a chemical and number of chemicals poses a unique threat to women.
Women should have equal access to all occupations and with that equal access, women should not face an additional burden of being exposed to harmful pesticides or other chemicals while working.
While pesticide exposure creates health risks for women, that is not to say that pesticide exposure is not harmful to men – in an ideal world, no one would be at risk of being exposed to chemicals that harm our health.
Regardless of your occupation, everyone has a right to a healthy and safe workplace. And employers must adapt their practices in order to respect that right. In the case of agriculture, there are alternative growing methods that use less or no pesticides, such as regenerative agriculture or organic farming.