October 22, 2014

Fact or Fiction: Public Health Risks and Immigration

Joanna Mackenzie

Joanna Mackenzie

Research Assistant, Food System Policy

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Weeding sugar beets near Ft. Collins, 1972.

Weeding sugar beets near Ft. Collins, 1972.

Opponents of immigration reform have jumped on the Ebola crisis, stigmatizing immigrants regardless of whether they came from an Ebola-affected country or not. These opponents falsely claim that immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are a risk to the public’s health due to all the nasty diseases they might be carrying!

In fact, the real risk to public health comes from the environmental and working hazards that immigrants, who make up 72% of the agricultural workforce in the United States, are exposed to on a daily basis while maintaining our nation’s food supply. (The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future recently called for action to address the public health risks that immigrant and migratory agricultural workers are exposed to on a daily basis.) While these immigrants, 48% of whom are undocumented, and the thousands more who work at slaughter and processing facilities, keep the U.S. food system running, they have little protection from environmental hazards and poor access to healthcare, if illness or injury occurs.

Let’s take a look at some of the public health risks that affect the 4.5 million immigrant farm workers and family members who make it possible for us to eat low-cost food year round.

First, approximately 10,000 to 20,000 pesticide poisonings affect hired agricultural workers in the U.S. every year, resulting in gastrointestinal distress, contact dermatitis, neurological symptoms, eye irritation and in some cases death. [1] The actual number, however, is likely much higher due to underreporting and poor access and utilization of health care services. Repeated exposure to pesticides has been linked to increased risk of several types of cancer, respiratory disease, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, adverse reproductive health outcomes, and neuro-developmental delays in children. [2]

But chemicals aren’t the only issue. Farm workers are also at increased risk of respiratory disease from exposure to noxious gases such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, carbon dioxide, methane, and carbon monoxide, which are released from manure decomposition. In addition to harmful gases, workers on certain operations breathe air filled with tiny particles of allergens, dust, fecal particles, and inorganic matter, which can cause breathing problems ranging from acute and chronic bronchitis, asthma-like syndrome, and organic dust toxic syndrome. [2]

Finally, thanks to industrial agriculture’s widespread misuse of antibiotics at non-therapeutic levels, farm workers are also exposed to nasty and drug-resistant bugs, such as E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus, which live in and on the animals they care for, or survive in the manure used to fertilize food crops. [3-5]

For example, recent research, funded in part by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, found that nearly half of workers who care for animals in large industrial hog farming operations in North Carolina could be carrying livestock-associated bacteria, including multi-drug-resistant strains, in their nasal passages for up to four days after exposure, putting themselves, their families and their communities at risk. [4] Another study, which included data from 445,000 Pennsylvania residents over a 10-year period, showed that those living in close proximity to crop fields fertilized with swine manure were more likely to be infected by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA, and to experience skin and soft tissue infections. [5]

Although Ebola virus disease is a very scary and a serious threat, the systemic flaws that characterize our food system have been putting the health of agricultural workers and the public at risk long before the current Ebola outbreak, and will continue to do so long after the Ebola crisis has abated. This is not a time to stigmatize immigrants, but a time to start addressing the unsustainable agricultural practices that endanger the public safety and health of farm workers, rural communities and consumers on a daily basis.

Image: Weeding Sugar Beets Near Fort Collins/ Bill Gillette, 1972. National Archives and Records Administration.


[1] Pesticide illness and injury surveillance. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health website. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/pesticides/. Updated September 11, 2013. Accessed September 16, 2014.

[2] Quandt SA, Kucera KL, Haynes C, Klein BG, Langley R, Agnew M. et al. Occupational health outcomes for workers in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector: Implications for immigrant workers in the southeastern US. Am J Ind Med. 2013; 56(8): 940-59.

[3] Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Putting meat on the table: industrial farm animal production in America. 2008. http://www.ncifap.org/_images/PCIFAPFin.pdf . Accessed September 16, 2014.

[4] Nadimpalli M, Rinsky JL, Wing S, Hall D, Stewart J, Larsen J et al. Persistence of livestock-associated antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus aureus among industrial hog operation workers in north carolina over 14 days. Occup Environ Med, 2014; 0:1-10. doi:10.1136/oemed-2014-102095

[5] Casey JA, Curriero FC, Cosgrove SE, Nachman KE, Schwartz BS. High-density livestock operations, crop field application of manure, and risk of community-associated methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus infection in pennsylvania. JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(21):1980-90.

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