Marta Cruz left Michoacán, Mexico with her husband and 1-year-old son a decade and a half ago to work in the fields of Homestead, Florida, picking lemons and tomatoes as farm workers. A couple of years ago, she began suffering from headaches but figured it was from the long hours working under the sweltering sun or the stress of figuring out how to pay bills.
Two years ago she fell to the ground with convulsions and was rushed to a hospital, where she learned she had a cancerous brain tumor -- it was later removed. One year later, her 17 year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. By the time he received medical attention, it had already spread to his stomach, chest and lungs.
According to Cruz, no one in her family has ever suffered from cancer. She believes she and her son may have developed the disease from exposure to pesticides while working at a Florida nursery.
“Like in many nurseries, the situation wasn’t the best,” said Cruz. “They would spray in the morning while we were arriving to work instead of spraying in the evenings.”
A representative for the nursery declined comment.
At the time, Cruz said she had no idea pesticides posed a health risk to workers. When her son was around nine, he started going to the fields to help his father work, which Cruz believes further exposed him to pesticides.
“Since the problem of cancer seems to be popping up a lot in the community, I believe it may be associated to pesticides,” Cruz explained. She knows at least six other farm workers who developed cancer recently – four have died.
She is not the only one who feels the amount of farm workers with cancer is growing. Elvira Carvajal, from The Farmworker Association of Florida, which focuses on training how to properly handle pesticides, took notice of the growing concern and began tracking cancer cases.
Carvajal said the five she has documented so far this year are former co-workers she visits and monitors but said she continues to hear of others in the community. Carvajal alleged these farm workers may be developing cancer from exposure to pesticides.
She said she speaks from experience. Before joining the organization, Carvajal worked in nurseries for over 20 years. Her job was to plant 700 orchids every 20 minutes along with five other women. Each bed of orchids they worked on would be sprayed as the workers were planting.
“I would feel the mist of the pesticide on me and thought it was refreshing from the intense heat…they would tell us the pesticides were harmless and wouldn’t affect us,” Carvajal said.
“They would tell us it was food for the plants. Since the flowers and leaves looked so beautiful and healthy, we really thought pesticides were harmless… we didn’t know any better,” she added.
Exposing a worker to pesticides is a violation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. It wasn’t until Carvajal attended a meeting of the FWAF that she realized exposure to pesticides is harmful and she needed to start protecting herself.
Carvajal recalled “there was a family of farm workers at that meeting and two members had just died of cancer. People were saying it was because of the pesticides. One of them would spray and not protect himself. I left feeling uncomfortable.”
According to the Florida Health Department, “in animal studies, some pesticides have been shown to be carcinogenic. Research among human populations have had mixed findings, but seem to suggest evidence of a relationship between certain pesticide exposures and certain cancers.”
The Health Department’s Agricultural Health Study, which focuses on the development of cancer in the farming community, has evaluated more than 20 pesticides to determine if there is an increased risk of developing cancer.
According to the study, “some of these results have shown that people exposed to certain pesticides have an increased risk of developing certain cancers, but further research is needed to confirm these findings…”
Ruben A. Mesa, chair of hematology and oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, agreed.
"Pesticides definitely can increase the risk of cancer,” he said. But he noted that “it is difficult to pull out whether one specific cancer is caused by natural chance or chemical exposure.”
Carvajal said she plans to file a report with the Health Department and blames the overexposure of pesticides on lack of knowledge among workers and weak government regulation.
Environmental Protection Agency regulations require “that a pesticide product undergo hundreds of studies that the agency uses to ensure any pesticide use is safe for human health and the environment.”
Under those regulations, “nurseries are required to post warning signs (in sprayed areas) required by the (Worker Protection Standard) in both Spanish and English."
But Carvajal doesn’t think the regulations go far enough, or at least workers by and large have no idea they exist. So more awareness is necessary, she said.
The FWAF said the EPA and the United States Department of Agriculture are not doing enough to protect farm workers, activists like Carvajal say. They said the Worker Protection Standard, which is set by the EPA to reduce pesticide poisoning and injury, needs updating.
According to the EPA, there are already changes under consideration that would “improve protections to the human health of almost two million workers minority and low income workers."
Another complaint is that the USDA only has 43 inspectors for over 20,000 nurseries in the state of Florida. In addition, inspectors call nurseries before inspection to let them know they are going, which gives managers ample time to make appropriate changes to meet regulations.
According to the USDA, “the department does schedule routine inspections, which require certain individuals to be on site. However, we do not notify them in advance for inspections related to complaints or concerns. These are unannounced.”
The agency conducts about 820 inspections annually and inspectors are available to respond immediately to any adverse pesticide related events.
Meanwhile, Cruz continues to wonder how she and her son could have developed cancer, if the cause was not pesticides. She can no longer work so she and her two children depend on her husband’s salary. They save three weekly checks to pay the rent and medical bills are mounting.
Despite all the setbacks, Cruz remains strong and upbeat.
“If it’s not pouring rain, it’s drizzling,” Cruz said with a smile.