WENATCHEE, Wash. — José and Luis are only 10 and 11 years old, but they are already expert cherry-pickers. With three summers of experience working in the orchards with their father, they know how to pluck the cherries without harming the tree bud. They know how to avoid the tractors that speed through the long slender rows of trees. They know that these long days spent working in the sun equal food for their family.
“I’m sort of tired, but it’s not so bad,” says Luis, with a weary grin, as his small brown hands drop several cherries into the sagging white bucket strapped to his chest.
Yet José and Luis shouldn’t even be here: It is illegal for children under the age of 12 to work in the fields. It happens all the time.
Due to lack of accessible daycare and the need to supplement family incomes, hundreds of thousands of children throughout the West join their parents to pick fruits and vegetables every year. They’re the most heart-rending evidence of a regulatory system that seems content to look the other way.
During the several weeks of the cherry harvest in July, the orchard where José and Luis work is sprayed frequently with pesticides. No one knows what their exposure levels are — or what they might be for the many other children working in the fields. But children are the most sensitive population exposed to these toxic chemicals.
“The most vulnerable of the vulnerable, and the most ignored, are farmworker children,” says Carol Dansereau of the Farm Worker Pesticide Project, based in Seattle. “This is an appalling situation, which would not be tolerated for other children, and cannot be allowed to continue.”
When tests are done, high levels of toxic chemicals are consistently detected in the blood of farmworker children, according to studies conducted within the last five years by scientists at both the University of Washington and University of California at Berkeley. Even pesticide exposures that may not affect adults can cause significant illness in children, says Dansereau, because children breathe and eat more than adults relative to their body weights, and their growing bodies and internal organs are especially sensitive in the developmental phase.
Exposure to pesticides early in life can lead to a greater risk of chronic health problems and diseases, including cancer. It may affect neurological functioning, neurodevelopment and growth, according to the Center for Children’s Environmental Health Research at the University of California at Berkeley. Despite such findings, the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets pesticide standards, provides no special protection for children. The EPA says it can’t formulate regulations for illegal child workers who aren’t supposed to be there in the first place. “We can’t change the regulations, unless the Department of Labor sets the legal age at an absurdly young age,” says Kevin Keaney, a branch chief for worker protection with the EPA. “There’s not really anything we can do about it.”
And the Department of Labor is reluctant to acknowledge that children work in the fields, because that would appear to condone the situation. Trying to force an acknowledgment, a coalition of 11 farmworker and environmental groups has just sued the EPA, seeking tougher pesticide standards that protect the most vulnerable children. The states of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut have filed a similar lawsuit against the EPA.