Concern For Agricultural Workers After WHO Cancer Finding

Mar 30, 2015

Few people come into contact with farm chemicals the way agricultural workers do. That's why a new health report on a commonly used herbicide is raising special concerns about farmworkers and cancer.

Farmers all over the world use tractors to apply herbicides like glyphosate to their fields.
Credit Chafer Machinery

For years, researchers have seen glyphosate as one of the least harmful herbicides. It doesn’t cause very many acute poisonings. But now the World Health Organization has said there’s “limited evidence” long-term exposure can cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma in people.

Chuck Benbrook studies glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, at Washington State University. He says it’s the most heavily applied herbicide in history.

Benbrook: “This comes as a really huge surprise. It’s going to have a chilling effect worldwide on the use of Roundup.”

Benbrook says this new report could be bad news for farmworkers — especially people applying the herbicide by hand or from four-wheelers.

Benbrook: “The people doing those applications, unless they’re very careful and wear proper protective equipment, they’re getting significant exposures.”

In the Northwest, the herbicide is used on crops like barley, garbanzo beans, and wheat. Roundup is most often used on genetically modified crops — like corn and soybeans — that Roundup doesn’t kill. These crops aren’t grown in the Northwest.

Many farmworker unions and clinics try to teach people how to reduce their exposure to pesticides.

Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center in Hillsboro west of Portland is one of those clinics. It recently expanded its pesticide safety education.

Spokeswoman Olivia MacKenzie says a team helps workers learn how to properly outfit themselves and how to take off clothing and protective gear — without dragging pesticide residue home. She says right now physicians treat things like rashes and asthma from pesticide exposure.

MacKenzie: “We do expect that there will be long-term issues that some of these farmworkers who have a long duration of exposure will be experiencing.”

MacKenzie says the center is also training its physicians to educate and treat farmworkers with pesticide exposure.

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