Catholic church working to protect Hispanic farmworkers from pesticides in Washington state

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2004

PROSSER, Wash. (AP) The Sunday Mass ended, a handful of Hispanic farmworkers quietly file down the hall to a classroom at Sacred Heart Church. On the wall, a poster warning about the dangers of pesticides goes unnoticed, as does a stack of pamphlets on the table.

But in minutes, four fellow farmworkers have the floor, firing off pesticide information in Spanish. The instructions separate work clothes in the laundry, wash up before touching the children aren't new. They've been delivered before, but often not in Spanish, rarely in such detail, and never by an institution so trusted by farmworkers: the Roman Catholic Church.

With the help of the church, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference has begun offering pesticide training to farmworkers in Washington's Yakima Valley, the only region of the country where the nonprofit provides such instruction.

''It's not a typical thing that Catholic parishes do,'' said Tim Kautza, science and environmental education specialist for the Catholic social service group. ''With this audience having a great tie to the Catholic Church, looking at the church as a place that provides a safe environment, a trusting environment, it fills the need.''

The idea was sparked during a board meeting in the Yakima Valley, an agricultural region heavy with apples, cherries, grapes and hops that relies largely on Hispanic labor.

''I think any church, certainly ours, is looking for the well-being of the whole person their relationship with God, their well-being spiritually has a lot to do with their well-being physically,'' said Yakima Bishop Carlos Sevilla, whose diocese covers seven central Washington counties. ''The purpose is to help the people in the fields preserve their health.''

Federal and state regulations require farmworkers to receive pesticide safety training from their employers growers or farmers. The training sessions, however, don't stress the law. It's the farmworkers responsibility to be aware, said Jorge Lobos of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

''For most of the workers, the pesticides and their health are important to them, but it's not a priority. The priority is making money, to eat and live,'' Lobos said. ''This is just to awaken them to the many simple things they can do to protect themselves.''

The sessions offered by the Catholic group target women and children, who are more likely to miss pesticide training as they work seasonally to supplement the family income.

Women also often work through pregnancy, which puts the unborn baby at risk, and are more likely to carry pesticides home on their hands and clothing to the children, said David Youmans, rural development specialist for the Washington State University extension.

''There are assumptions a few words are enough. There are assumptions you understand what's being said. There are assumptions you can read the label or the sign on the wall,'' Youmans said. ''Pesticide exposure is serious business and it can be cumulative and it can be long range.''

Juan Munoz, 34, and his wife started a day care for the children of migrant workers. With three children of their own, including a 14-year-old son who works in the fields picking currants, they understand the importance of pesticide training.

On a recent day, they watched as a migrant worker came in from the fields, hands black from working in the soil, and immediately picked up her 6-month-old baby.

''It's not good for handling the children directly from the field,'' Munoz said. ''If we get knowledge about it, we might be able to tell them what harm they can do to the children.''

The training is especially important in regions where different crops require pesticides of varying toxicity. Workers in an apple orchard, for instance, might have to wait just 48 hours after spraying to begin working. In other cases, it could be 14 days, said Efrain Quiroz, an orchard manager for Washington State University extension.

Local, state and federal agencies have assisted with the training, in some cases with workers donating their own time. Training sessions already have been held in at least five central Washington towns already.

If additional money can be found, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference plans to expand the training to other parts of the country.

''Catholics are to provide help to those who are most vulnerable, and farmworkers certainly fit that need,'' Kautza said.

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