More than 1 billion pounds of poisonous pesticides are applied on farms annually in the United States, resulting in as many as 20,000 physician-diagnosed poisonings annually among agricultural workers. University of Oregon environmental studies scholar Sarah Wald puts the number of farmworkers exposed to toxic levels of pesticides closer to 300,000, more than 10 times the official number.
I remember, and you might too, feeling virtuous when my family took part in the California grape boycott in the 1970s. I was only a teenager, but to me it meant that I was standing in solidarity with farm workers. I felt a bond, although I’d never met a farm worker as far as I knew.
My small action, combined with the similar ethical choices of millions of others, helped farm workers position themselves to win. And what did they win? What they asked for were basic human rights: safer working conditions, less pesticide exposure, habitable housing and better wages.
Oregon has over 300 registered farm worker housing camps and another 200 unregistered camps. Most of these camps are located within orchards and fields that are regularly sprayed with pesticides that are human carcinogens and neurotoxins. To protect farm workers, the federal law requires a minimum 100-ft. no-spray buffer around farm worker housing. You may be surprised and dismayed to learn that Oregon’s worker protection agency, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), wants to give Oregon farmers “a pass” on following the 100-ft pesticide buffer regulation.
This is Part III of a three-part series on the working conditions and treatment of Oregon's immigrant forestry workers.
Two years ago, there was little public awareness about the common industrial practice of using helicopters to spray thousands of acres of forests with herbicides. That was before the Cedar Valley spray case in which over forty people reported being sickened by exposure to a chemical soup raining down from an aerial herbicide spray. After all, who could really imagine that Oregon’s timber companies routinely hire helicopter pilots, dozens of hazardous chemical truck drivers and pesticide applicators to carry out a program of blanketing forestlands and streams with toxic chemicals?
It seemed unbelievable, until the public learned more.