Read the full article by Melanie Benes and Jared Hayes

“Depending on the season, an estimated 1 million to 2.7 million workers, mostly undocumented, toil on the nation’s farms. Without farmworkers, the American food system would collapse – and during the coronavirus pandemic, they are especially essential to ensuring that food arrives on grocery shelves.  

But farmworkers are especially at risk of falling ill from COVID-19. They live and work in crowded spaces, lacking in personal protective equipment or enough room for social distancing. They are exposed to toxic pesticides, contaminated drinking water and air polluted with harmful dust particles and farm machinery exhaust.

The interactive map below overlays confirmed COVID-19 cases with counties estimated to have the highest concentrations of farmworkers, which shows where farm labor is concentrated across the country and the rise in cases of COVID-19 in those areas. Clicking on a county brings up more detailed information. Below we discuss the reasons farmworkers are uniquely vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Farmworkers often work in poor, unsanitary conditions, with no room to self-isolate at home. Immigrant workers with H-2A visas – commonly referred to as guest workers – often live in dormitory-style housing with up to 10 or 20 people sharing rooms, bathrooms and bars of soap. Sometimes they live in converted hotels, with several workers sleeping in bunk beds in the same room. Workers often get to and from job sites in shared vans or trucks, making social distancing impossible.

Because COVID-19 can spread quickly through airborne droplets or close contact with other people or contaminated surfaces, one case at a work site or dormitory could very quickly infect many people.

In the fields, workers report a lack of hand soap, or hand-washing stations that are too far away to be used frequently. As CNN reported last month, some employers are reducing the number of workers transported on buses and creating more space in between workers in the fields. But workers have raised concerns about inadequate supplies of soap and protective equipment and a failure to enforce social distancing guidelines. Workers have also complained that some companies are providing supervisors, but not workers, with protective masks. 

Farmworkers Have Higher Rates of Underlying Medical Conditions

Even before the pandemic struck, farmworkers suffered from poor health. Substandard working and living conditions, lack of money and time to get and cook nutritious food, and seasonal unemployment contribute to high rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol. Underlying health problems can put people at higher risk for severe cases of COVID-19.

Farmworkers’ health is further compromised by a lack of access to healthcare because of language barriers, ineligibility for or cost of insurance, lack of reliable transportation, no paid sick leave and limited rural medical facilities. These problems all make it harder to treat underlying conditions and to identify and address emerging health concerns.

Farmworkers Are Exposed to Toxic Pesticides

Farmworkers are often exposed to dangerous pesticides. An increasing array of data shows an association between pesticide exposure and harmful effects on the immune system, as reported in a comprehensive review published this month. For example, organophosphate pesticides are a group of widely used highly toxic pesticides that are known to alter several immune functions in animal studies. People with compromised immune systems are at higher risk of severe cases if infected with COVID-19.

Contaminants in Tap Water in Agricultural Areas Can Harm the Immune System

Farmworkers often lack access to clean water. Small rural water systems have fewer customers among whom they can distribute the costs of water treatment and maintenance, making it harder for the system to provide clean water. Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, small water systems are not always subject to the same treatment requirements as larger systems. Many small systems are not required to monitor for unregulated contaminants, which makes it more difficult to identify emerging problems.

Many rural families get their water from private wells, which are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, poor rural farmworker communities often have tap water tainted with agricultural pollution, and state programs to provide safe drinking water often fall short. The problem has been made worse by some shoppers’ hoarding bottled water during the COVID-19 crisis.

The toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS – estimated to contaminate the water systems of 110 million Americans – are also not regulated by the EPA. Studies have shown that exposure to PFAS chemicals can harm the immune system and make vaccines less effective. Some counties with high concentrations of farmworkers have reported high levels of PFAS in drinking water sources.

For example, water samples from municipal wells serving the City of Fresno, in Fresno County, Calif., the nation’s leading agricultural producer, reported a peak of 840 parts per trillion, or ppt, of total PFAS. In the California Water Service-Visalia, in neighboring Tulare County, the second-ranking agricultural producer in the nation, the highest measurement of total PFAS was 271 ppt in a municipal well used for emergencies. Research by EWG and other independent scientists indicates that a safe level of PFAS in drinking water is 1 ppt.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring contaminant, but exhaustive groundwater pumping, common in farming areas like California’s Central Valley, can make the pollution worse. A growing body of evidence indicates that arsenic exposure suppresses the immune system. People with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to dangerous symptoms of COVID-19…”