New Internationalist

Toxic Farming

Issue 198

new internationalist
issue 198 - August 1989

Toxic farming
Every year thousands of workers develop cancer from
exposure to dangerous carcinogens. Even farmers are at
risk from the routine use of pesticides and herbicides. Richard
Kazis
reports from California's San Joaquin Valley.

In February 1986, Willoughby Houk travelled to Washington, DC, to lobby on behalf of family farmers. The first night Houk, a farmer from California's San Joaquin Valley, awoke with a start. Turning on the light, he saw his pillows and sheets were covered with blood. His nose was bleeding profusely and attempts to stop it were unsuccessful.

The next morning, the 58-year-old farmer flew back to California and went straight to his doctor who quickly found in Houk's cheek a tumor the size of a medium banana. Houk, who claims he had 'never been sick a day in his life', had cancer of the lymph system - called non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

For Houk, there is little question his cancer is work-related. For years he had sprayed huge doses of herbicides on his fields for both weed control and as a cotton defoliant. But not everyone in the scientific community is as convinced as Houk. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is publicly sceptical. Is there a link between phenoxy herbicides of the type used by Houk and the incidence of lymphoma among farmers? That question is under intense scrutiny by scientists and politicians in the United States.

Mr Houk has lived his entire life on his family ranch near Firebaugh, 40 miles due west of Fresno in the flat, irrigated farmland of the San Joaquin. Together, he and his father - and now his two sons - have raised cotton, corn, wheat, alfalfa, cantaloupe, walnuts and some cattle on their 480-acre ranch. At different times, they have employed between 15 and 200 workers.

'My father and I did a lot of our own work,' Houk explains. 'For 30 years we used Paraquat for weed control in the irrigation ditches. Paraquat contains 2,4-D, the same active ingredient that was in the Agent Orange defoliant used in Vietnam. And we used a DDT-based cotton defoliant, too - basically the same kind of chemical.

'We'd spray herbicide in the spring. We'd mix it up in a big 300 gallon tank, then apply it with a nozzle, walking or riding the tractor. A little breeze and you'd be in a fog of the stuff. The cotton defoliation is done in the fall. With all the farms spraying, the whole valley was full of it. Nobody ever told us to wear masks. There was no indication from anyone that we needed masks.'

Houk was given 90 days to live when the tumor was discovered. But he was luckier than most; six months of intensive treatment eradicated his cancer entirely. This October he will have survived three years without a recurrence.

Before his illness, Houk was a bear of a man, six foot two inches and 280 pounds. In 90 days, he lost 157 pounds. 'I was never in a wheel chair,' he says, 'but I was so weak I could only walk three or four steps for about seven months. It took me two years to get back to where I am now - about 50 per cent of what I was. I don't do any physical work now. All my work is supervisory - on-site or from the vehicle. I need to nap a lot.

'There were some side effects. I don't walk so well because some of my tendons are shot. One hand is crippled, my jaw has no feeling and I have a lot of trouble with my teeth. The roots are dead. The teeth crumble if I bite down hard. But at least I don't have cancer - I am luckier than some of my friends.'

Houk's belief that his cancer was caused by phenoxy herbicides containing 2,4-D (like Paraquat) stems partly from what he has seen among his friends and neighbors: a surprising number of cancers like his own. According to Houk, in the last two years there have been at least 54 cases of cancer in his farming community of 3,600 residents. Perhaps half or more were lymphomas. 'We were the first area,' says Houk. 'But there's been a cancer outbreak right through the trough of this valley. It's popping up all over the place. We've all been breathing the same stuff.'

There is growing evidence from other farming communities that exposure to herbicides containing 2,4-D increases significantly the risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The best evidence comes from a study by National Cancer Institute epidemiologist Dr Sheila Hoar Zahm. Dr Zahm studied all cases of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and soft-tissue sarcoma (a tumor of the connective tissue) diagnosed between 1976 and 1982 among white males over 21 in the wheat-producing State of Kansas. That State was chosen because herbicides have been used on wheat crops more frequently than on other crops: 2,4-D has been the most commonly used pesticide but 2,4,5-T, another suspected carcinogen, has also been widely used.

The study found no increased risk of Hodgkin's disease or soft-tissue sarcoma. But the risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma among farmers exposed to herbicides more than 20 days a year was six times that of non-farmers.

A follow-up study of farmers in Nebraska has also found a higher risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma among farmers exposed to herbicides. Zahm and her colleagues are now doing long-term research. They're studying both employees of the Chemlawn company, who apply herbicides as part of their lawn care jobs, and public employees in the Northwest, who spray weed killers alongside state highways.

Diane Baxter, toxicologist for the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, a Washington-based advocacy group, charges that 'no epidemiologist faced with these studies would find that there is a controversy.' The US Government disagrees and has taken no action on 2,4-D. One reason may be scientific: more study may be needed. Another may well be political: to admit that 2,4-D is linked to human cancer would call into question the Government's position that veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war are not at greater risk.

In the past few years, California has passed stringent rules on herbicides. Chemicals can no longer be poured into open containers. Farm workers who spray pesticides and herbicides must wear respirators and wash their clothes immediately after application. No pesticides are sold without a permit. And permits are issued only after farmers say where, when, and how the pesticide will be used.

Some claim these protections are inadequate - and too late to save many farmers and farmworkers from suffering and death. The latency period for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma seems to be decades. Herbicide-related cancers now are the result of past practice - when use was unregulated.

Willoughby Houk will never recover fully. But he is a lot luckier than many others who put food on America's tables. Houk owns his farm and can decide himself to stop using chemicals and adopt safer farming practices. He has health insurance: he had to pay only $6,000 of his $180,000 in medical bills. And he beat his cancer.

For migrant and seasonal farm workers, most of whom have no insurance and little chance of proper medical treatment, work remains exceedingly dangerous. Although few credible statistics exist, US Government figures suggest 80,000 to 90,000 farm workers a year suffer from pesticide poisoning. The average life expectancy of a farm worker is 49 years - more than 20 years less than the national average.

Meanwhile, in and around Firebaugh, people are scared and angry. Says Mr Houk: 'On a four-and-a-half mile stretch of road, we've had seven cases of cancer. One of my closest friends and neighbors - 58-years-old - he got cancer in his intestine. He was sick for six months, went through the same thing I did - only he didn't make it. I don't know that it's related, but it's hard to believe that it isn't.'

Richard Kazis is a Boston-based writer and frequent contributor to the NI.

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