Addressing Pesticide Exposure in the MSHS Community

Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) families are exposed to agricultural chemicals through their activity as farmworkers. Health managers, family service workers, and other members of the Head Start community will want to understand the health problems this exposure may cause. The Oregon Child Development Coalition (OCDC) MSHS developed a community based approach to address the issue.

The following is an excerpt from...
Head Start Bulletin

Concern About the Pesticides
Participatory Research to Find Solutions
Study Objectives
Survey Results
Need for Future Research

WHEN THE SUN RISES from behind the coastal range, crews of thirty assemble at the edges of huge fields and start picking strawberries, slowly making their way down the long furrows, hundreds of men and women bent over at the waist, grabbing fruit with both hands. In the early morning light it looks like a scene out of the distant past, the last remnant of a vanishing way of life—and yet nothing could be further from the truth.
—Eric Schlosser, In the Strawberry Fields

Concern About the Pesticides

THERE ARE AND ESTIMATED 4.2 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families who live and work in the United States (Arcury 1998). They are among the most disadvantaged and medically indigent in the country. They have the poorest health and lowest life expectancy of any group in the United States. Multiple factors undermine their quality of life, but of particular concern to migrant and seasonal Head Start families is their exposure to agricultural chemicals.

They worry that this exposure may be responsible for a variety of health problems ranging from minor illnesses to permanent disabilities, chronic illnesses, and even death. Contact with pesticides in the fields during pregnancy has been linked to the delivery of a premature child with a disability or compromised immune system. Understandably, many migrant and seasonal farm workers have questions: “Is it safe for me to breastfeed when I am working? Is it more dangerous for me to be working in the fields early on or later in pregnancy? Should I take off my shoes before I walk in my house? Am I having trouble with my eyes because I’ve been picking fruit trees that have been sprayed?”

Many farm workers share the sentiment of this mother:

Yet another woman here, whose baby was born prematurely, told me that throughout her pregnancy, men dressed in protective suits were unloading and applying chemicals next door to her house at the nursery. She said to me, “If the chemicals aren’t dangerous, why are they wearing those suits? And if they are, why aren’t they coming to warn me how to protect my babies?” (Muir 1998)

Try as we might to connect the farmworkers’ experiences with medical knowledge, there are no clear-cut answers to pesticide exposure. No one in the health and research community is able to say with certainty that agricultural chemicals are or are not the cause of some health problems that affect the migrant and seasonal farmworkers community. Furthermore, it has been difficult for many Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs to develop pesticide prevention or intervention strategies that are culturally and linguistically appropriate.

Finding the Answers

IN AN EFFORT TO ADDRESS the concerns of the farmworker community, the Oregon Child Development Coalition (OCDC) Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program has engaged in “community based participatory research” with the Oregon Health Sciences University Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology (CROET).

What is exciting about participatory research? It is structured to shift decision-making and decision-taking increasingly into the hands of the participants—in this case, the farmworker community. The research process is meant to be a medium for community empowerment.

The project is lead by an advisory board with representatives from the farmworker community, Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs, the agricultural community, academic institutions, and local family service organizations. The migrant and seasonal farmworker community has collaborated in the process from the initial design of the project to its ongoing evaluation.

The objectives of the study are to—

  1. Establish the relationship between the levels of pesticides in homes and these factors: the crops household members work in; the common pesticides used; the proximity of housing to fields; and household characteristics, including ventilation, size and traffic patterns.
  2. Evaluate pesticide overexposure of workers and their children by measuring associated biomarkers and neurobehavioral markers.
  3. Increase the effectiveness of Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs n promoting behaviors that avoid pesticide exposure in the home and work environment of farmworkers and their children.

What Is Known

SURVEYS WERE CONDUCTED of pesticide use and protective practices in the fields. Results indicated that less than one fifth of the farmworkers wore protective clothing and equipment for their jobs (McCauley et al 2001). Most entered their homes with their work clothes on. In fact, the study revealed that workers have many misconceptions about proper protective gear. Some workers believe that ineffective devices such as bandannas will protect them against pesticide exposure. Dust samples were taken in homes and in open areas where migrant children play. High levels of pesticides were found in both settings.

Continuing research is needed to document the effects of pesticide exposure on farmworkers and their families. Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs can play a critical role in educating this population about their health and safety and in advocating on their behalf.


Arcury, T., & S. Quandt. 1998. Chronic agricultural chemical exposure among migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Society and Natural Resources 11: 829-843.

McCauley, L.A., M.R. Lasarev, G. Higgins, J. Rothlein, J. Muniz, C. Ebbert, & J. Phillips. 2001. Work characteristics and pesticide exposure among migrant agricultural families: A community-based research approach. Environmental Health Perspectives 109 (5): 533-538.

Muir, M. 1998. Migrant malaise. Oregon Health, A Magazine of Possibilities, Accomplishments, People and Ideas 1 (1): 22-25.

Schlosser, E. 1995. In the strawberry fields. The Atlantic Monthly November: 276. Also available at

Marco Beltran is a Program Specialist for the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Quality Improvement Center, Academy for Educational Development, Migrant and Seasonal Head Start.

For more information regarding the research project or for copies of the Spanish language pesticides safety video “Un Lugar Seguro para sus Niños” (A Safe Place for Your Children), contact Rachelle Mann-Gaytan or Jacki Phillips, at the Oregon Child Development Coalition.

"Addressing Pesticide Exposure in the MSHS Community." Beltran, Marco. Adult Health. Head Start Bulletin #75. DHHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2003. English.

Last Reviewed: November 2009

Last Updated: October 3, 2014