When Anabel Garcia came home from her job growing grapes in Sonoma County, California, she noticed that her saliva was black.
During wildfire season, Garcia and his fellow migrant farm workers were sent to rescue wine grapes before they were contaminated by smoke. Garcia and her co-workers experienced difficulty breathing and were not given protective clothing, instead only wearing bandanas to cover their noses and mouths.
“It was hard for us to breathe, and our eyes hurt. After the next few days, we could feel it in our lungs,” Garcia, 42, said in Spanish through a translator. “We were getting sore throats and spewing dark matter.”
Garcia does not have a primary care physician or medical benefits. She said she goes to a mobile health clinic “only when I need to.”
“The most important thing for the owners was the grapes. It makes me angry that no one called us afterwards to check on us,” he said.
During that summer of 2017, the mother of two from Mexico’s Michoacán region said she and other workers were not compensated for working in smoky conditions.
Agricultural workers are an understudied population, but vulnerable to certain health risks and barriers during wildfires, which are being exacerbated by climate change that is increasing temperatures and increasing their frequency, according to research from the University of Washington and others.
That’s why Michael Mendez, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine’s School of Ecology, launched a study with the National Center for Atmospheric Research this summer aimed at figuring out the risks to health faced by California’s Latino, Latino, and indigenous migrant farmworkers like Garcia during the wildfire. season
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Over the next few months and into the next year, researchers will study data from air quality monitors and analyze how it translates into health risks for farmworkers.
“When a wildfire happened, especially in agricultural areas, those farmworker communities were disproportionately affected,” Mendez told USA TODAY. “These people have been living in the region for years, if not decades, but they became invisible in the context of disaster policies.”
Although recent measures have been put in place, Mendez and advocates say there is still a long way to go, in Sonoma County and elsewhere, to protect the health of farmworkers and understand their unique exposures.
Through the study, Mendez hopes to fill in the gaps and provide data to inform policymakers.
“Wildfires don’t happen in isolation,” he said. “Wildfires occur in massive heat waves, which we’re experiencing now, as well as drought and other types of environmental hazards. We need to look for a more comprehensive approach and a holistic approach to how to protect the most vulnerable and essential workers.”
Wildfire smoke is a health hazard and farm workers are ‘more at risk’
Wildfire smoke and pollution in general are linked to health problems, and farmworkers may not have access to regular health care, said Joan Casey, an environmental epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Mailman School of Public Health. from Columbia University.
“The things that we absolutely know are linked to wildfire smoke are adverse respiratory outcomes and cardiovascular disease. We’ve seen that over and over again, in many different states. And that’s generally among the general public, people who will be much less exposed than people who work outside,” Casey said. “Farmworkers who do not receive care … if they have an underlying comorbidity that is not being treated, they would be at greater risk of, say, a cardiovascular event during a wildfire.”
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Other research groups have also been studying the topic and trying to fill in the gaps.
A study published in September in the journal Environmental Health Research Letters explored past and future exposures of agricultural workers to smoke using predicted climate conditions.
The researchers estimated that pollutant concentrations in wildfire smoke will intensify in Northern California, as well as in agricultural regions of the Central Valley and along the coast, with a 35% increase in days smoke exposure of agricultural workers.
“Several counties in central California with large numbers of agricultural workers will experience an increased frequency of smoke wave conditions,” wrote lead author Miriam Marlier, professor of environmental health at the Fielding School of Public Health. from the University of California, Los Angeles. and his companions.
Farm workers are not always told how to protect themselves
California farmworkers are not alone, experts say, and extreme heat only adds to unsafe working conditions during harvest and wildfire season in the western United States.
Agricultural workers across Washington state endured more intense exposures to heat and pollution during wildfire season, according to a study published in the Journal of Agromedicine last year, led by Elena Austin, an assistant professor at the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, University of Washington.
Counties with more farm workers had warmer temperatures and higher levels of exposure to hazardous particulate matter, a complex and harmful mix of inhalable pollutants. Those levels peaked during the summer and wildfire season, when the farmworker population is largest, Austin and colleagues found.
In a small 2018 pilot study that surveyed local field workers, about 3 out of 4 farm workers in Mattawa, Washington, reported exposure to an unhealthy level of smoke at work during fire season foresters, but said employers made no changes to their routines, according to the survey by the university’s Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center.
All farmworkers in the study said they received little or no information about how to protect themselves from smoke from managers, their preferred source of information. Less than half wore a mask and most wore a bandana.
“These people we interviewed actually didn’t have a good sense of what actions they could take to protect themselves,” Austin said.
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The state implemented an emergency rule requiring employers to provide protective equipment at specific levels of particulate matter concentration detected by air quality sensors. But Austin, whose research was used to advise policymakers, said there are still concerns.
“There are gaps in these rural areas, which could create a difficulty in determining exposure to field workers,” he said. His team is working with other groups to deploy sensors, which must be calibrated and maintained over time.
There are also few EPA sensors in the areas of concern, NCAR atmospheric scientist Rebecca Hornbrook told USA TODAY. Instead, his team will use data from the many purple air monitors in the area.
“It’s basically a community resource,” he said. “It’s a dense network. You can get a lot more spatial distribution using them than you can with some of the more sporadic EPA sensors.”
“The fight is far from over” to better serve California farmworkers
Back in Sonoma County, Anayeli Guzman, a farm worker from Oaxaca, Mexico, said she and her co-workers were told it was not dangerous to work.
“They told us it was OK to work because the fires were far away,” he said through a translator. But, Guzmán added, “it was very difficult to breathe.”
Like Garcia, Guzman said he does not have a doctor to visit regularly.
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“We don’t have access to regular checkups … to understand exactly what our health is like,” he said. “There’s anger, there’s sadness and there’s a certain sense of helplessness that we’re not being taken into account.”
The county Board of Supervisors recently approved a wildfire evacuation zone program run by the local sheriff’s office, according to local media reports. While advocates are celebrating this as a victory, they are also ambivalent about the law enforcement agencies running the program. Many of the migrant farm workers are undocumented.
“For a worker who associates the sheriff’s office with deportations and evictions and police brutality, this is not the place to really file complaints,” said Davida Sotelo Escobedo of North Bay Jobs for Justice, who called the new “powerful victory” measures, but one that must “continually improve.”
The supervisors did not approve hazard pay or evacuation, but designated a new disaster fund and insurance program for farm workers. “This (fund) will be used up very quickly.” Escobedo said. “The fight is far from over.”
Contact Nada Hassanein at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nhassanein_.