Originally posted on UW SPHA blog. Yakima Valley, Washington is one of the most productive and diverse agricultural regions in the country. Tree fruits and vegetables are have been stable crops, but unfortunately, the application of numerous toxic organophosphate pesticides (OPs) has become a common way to combat regional pests like the coddling moth. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) selected this area as one of ten Environmental Justice Showcase Communities due to multiple environmental health concerns of contaminated drinking water and air. Over the course of the last few years, my own research has been to identify cheap and safe air sampling methods for quantifying residential exposures to aid rural community-based health projects.
Scientists argue that the amount of OP pesticide use cannot go unnoticed because of the numerous health effects resulting from exposures. Data on residential exposures are important to look as associations with long-term health outcomes such as asthma, cancer and neurological disorders. Young children, genetically susceptible individuals, and farm workers and their families in the region may be particularly vulnerable– even if they are not involved in farm activities. They can be exposed to pesticides in outdoor and indoor environments if pesticides drift from nearby fields or family members bring home contaminated work clothing or materials.
During my field work experience, I had the chance to speak with many local residents who rely heavily on agricultural and food manufacturing industries to support jobs and sustain local livelihoods. Farmworkers often dream of transitioning to higher ranks and purchasing their own farmland, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation have been cultivating and leasing farmland for generations. In fact, the role of a pesticide applicator is usually one of the highest paid jobs on the farm.
Our research team recognized it was difficult to collect good air quality data in rural and remote areas. There are unstable electricity sources, variable housing quality, free-ranging farm animals and pets, and in homes with high residential density. Some farmworker families are surrounded by the constant anxieties of legal/non-legal status. They have busy lives with large families to support. It is important to develop new air quality measurement methods that are easy to deploy, inexpensive, and inconspicuous. Our prototype air samplers are not that glamorous– they don’t use electricity or high-tech equipment. These are called “passive air sampling” techniques.
It is our top priority to explain to local farmworkers and their families about their air quality and informing them of simple steps to improve what they are breathing indoors and outdoors. The use of passive air sampling techniques is a great way to cut costs and invasiveness for future air monitoring projects. With time and patience, we can only hope that better data on air quality will be well connected to health outcomes, especially in rural areas.
About Jenna Armstrong: I have always had a strong interest on the environmental health impacts of agriculture. Currently my research involves designing air monitoring projects to examine rural air quality, including: pesticide use and drift, agricultural occupational health and safety issues, bio-aerosols, and combustion byproducts. Outside school, I love to run– just qualified for my first Boston Marathon next year.