Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mexico Diaries, Day 11: Pesticides

This diary series covers my trip to the Mexican state of Jalisco to study the effects of NAFTA and the Green Revolution on subsistence farmers in rural areas. The trip began with a few days in Guadalajara, the largest city in the state. Then we headed to the rural town of Cuquio, about an hour and a half away, for the remainder of the trip. On the 11th day, we drove back to Guadalajara to spend our last day there. At breakfast, we discussed heading to one of the many agrochemical stores in Cuquio to check out the pesticides on our way out of town.

Should we go check out the pesticides? I was at breakfast, across the table from Ann, when one of the members of our group suggested it. A few folks wanted to go see what was in those stores we kept passing, day after day. Which pesticides were there? Were they ones that are illegal or restricted in the U.S.? Ann said she didn't mind making the stop, but she wasn't going in the store. Then she told us why.

When she was researching her book, The Farmworkers' Journey, she took inventories of which pesticides were stocked in Cuquio's various agrochemical stores. Every single time she did so, she and any research assistant she was with got sick. The bottles in the stores were closed, but the fumes made her sick all the same. Here's an excerpt from her book:

Many agrochemical stores are poorly ventilated. I found that spending time in them while taking inventories, even among unopened containers, produced physical symptoms ranging from nausea to trembling. When my research assistant and I left Dow Agrosciences' Veterinaria Partido in Tecalitlan, Jalisco, we were both shaking, felt naseous, and had bad headaches. The young woman tending the store informed us that her brother inadvertently dropped some 2,4-D on his hand and subsequently fainted. He was taken to a hospital and treated for agrochemical poisoning. The day after taking the agrochemical inventory at Veterinaria Partido, I became very ill and required medical treatment. - p. 227

So, did we want to go check out the pesticides? I decided my answer was no. I already suffer from migraines, a neurological problem, and I need no more headaches or other neurological (or other) symptoms. I'm willing to do an awful lot for the sake of investigative journalism, but putting my long term health on the line is not one of them. (I'm occasionally willing to go see a movie or go to a presentation with a Powerpoint, knowing that will give me a migraine for the next several days. Pesticides, on the other hand, can result in chronic effects that last much longer than the immediate symptoms one experiences. Headaches can be caused for neurological reasons, and trembling is typically a neurological symptom as well. That implies that these chemicals affect the brain - certainly not something worth risking. Ann also lists various cancers in her book that farmworkers exposed to pesticides suffer from at higher rates than the rest of the Latino population.)

Although we didn't hit up the pesticide retailer, we saw plenty, and I read more in Ann's book. Here's an excerpt about pesticide use in a society with poor education and literacy from my Alternet article:

Campesinos say they had few problems with pests prior to the adoption of agrochemicals. Today, many talk of of plagas, pest infestations, affecting their crops. In this environment of minimal education and lax regulation, the pesticides sold to defeat the pests present a severe human health and safety hazard. Ann Lopez reports that pesticides that are banned or designated as Restricted Use Pesticides in the United States are sold freely in Mexico. Paraquat, an herbicide so toxic that one teaspoonful can be fatal, is among the most widely used agrochemicals in this part of Mexico. The carcinogenic herbicide 2,4-D is also sold in Mexico, often in combination with 2,4,5-T. Together, a 50:50 mixture of the two chemicals constitutes Agent Orange.

The chemicals are so toxic a woman told Lopez her daughter became sterile just by working in an agrochemical retail shop among the fumes from closed bottles of chemicals. Yet, campesinos often apply the chemicals with backpacks and handheld pumps, wearing sandals and no protective clothing whatsoever. Some believe myths like "agrochemicals are only poisonous if the farmer is smoking cigarettes or drinking while applying them" or "insecticides are harmful but herbicides are safe." Warning labels on the bottles are of limited help as some people are in this part of Mexico are illiterate. The local doctor in Cuquio says that two of every 10 patients who visit him during the rainy season months of June through October each year are poisoned by agrochemicals. Three or four die each year.

On some of Ann's trips, she's arrived to find the town buzzing about someone who died from pesticide poisoning. Thankfully, this trip was not one of those occasions. We heard an awful lot about paraquat and Roundup use from the farmers we visited with. On one occasion, we visited a rich man's land and looked at his various pesticides and animal drugs. Among them was a cattle drug I wasn't able to identify, a fertilizer, and Ridomil, a fungicide. On another occasion, a woman told us her teenage sons applied pesticides without any protective clothing and then burned the containers. Occasionally, the sons would leave the containers around the yard and her younger children would find them and play with them. We found one container in the yard, unlabeled, that still had a liquid in it.

Needless to say, as harmful as pesticides can be in a first-world country with enforced regulations and a literate society, they are many times more directly harmful to human health in a place where those using them aren't educated and sometimes aren't even literate.

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