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The Silent Victims of Animal Agriculture: Pregnant Farmworkers

October 20, 2021

Certain pesticides and other chemicals … have weak, estrogen-like hormone imitating qualities called endocrine disruptors

In the United States, farm work is one of the top 10 most dangerous jobs. With women making up 25.5% of this work force, the occupational hazards exclusive to women's health is important to be aware of.  But how do these hazards change or increase when these women become pregnant, particularly hazards related to chemicals, inhaled gases and zoonotic diseases?

Inhaled Gases

We are all familiar with the gas carbon monoxide, perhaps the most dangerous gas that could enter one’s home, yet this same gas we work to avoid is extremely common in agricultural production. Since carbon monoxide is both colorless and odorless, it’s difficult to detect without proper equipment. However, carbon monoxide is a type of gas known to be produced typically in areas with poor ventilation indoors when machinery that uses fossil fuels is in use. According to the National Agriculture Safety Database, “Low levels of carbon monoxide have been associated with low birth weights and slow mental development in newborns. High levels have been associated with abortion.”

Zoonotic Diseases

Hepatitis E is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis E virus.  According to Swine Worser’s Health and Safety, “Hepatitis E is a swine specific type of virus [that] has been found in swine in  the US, although it does not cause illness in pigs.” While it rarely causes infections in humans, it still poses some risk to pregnant women. The human strain of hepatitis E infections are linked to increased rates of serious liver disease and liver failure and higher death rates in both mothers and fetuses. 

A more common zoonotic disease is listeria. This is a type of bacteria present in swine manure.  Although present in very low levels, exposure to listeria in other animal species can cause abortions.

Chemical Hazards  

In addition to women making up a majority of farm workers, the United States uses the second largest amount of pesticides out of all 195 countries. Although there’s already an increased risk of women ingesting chemicals due to handling household cleaning supplies more often, pregnant women farm workers can face possible adverse effects due to frequency of exposure.

Pesticides, a substance used to destroy organisms that harm plants and animals, is also a type of chemical agent that can be ingested through skin contact. According to the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) high levels of exposure to pesticides may contribute to miscarriage, preterm delivery, and birth defects.  Additionally, “Certain pesticides and other chemicals … have weak, estrogen-like hormone imitating qualities called endocrine disruptors.” Endocrine disruptors can interfere with many different hormones, some of which result in early puberty, alterations in sperm quality and fertility, and immune function.

Megan Anderson is an FFAC summer intern.

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