New York occupational health expert to discuss migrant worker health threats

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 8, 2009 – Migrant farm workers play a critical role in the nation's agricultural economy, particularly in the southeast. Yet these workers face a cornucopia of hazards, ranging from chemical toxins to dangerous farm equipment, as they toil in the fields.

Dr. John May, a physician and professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, will explore those risks and share some mitigation strategies during a presentation entitled “Occupational Health of Agricultural Workers: the Problems and How we are Addressing Them” on Thursday, April 23, from 4-5 p.m. at the Holiday Inn in Blacksburg.

“The agricultural work environment encountered by these people is one of the least regulated and most dangerous in the country,” writes May, who directs the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health in Cooperstown and is considered one of the nation’s leading medical experts on health issues facing migrant farm workers. “It is also one that is quite foreign to many interested in occupational health issues.”

The presentation is sponsored by the “Program for the Health and Safety for Agricultural Workers and their Families,” which is an emerging, collaborative effort mounted by a group of researchers in the social, medical, engineering, and biological sciences at Virginia Tech and Wake Forest University, according to Brad Klein, an associate professor in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Sciences at Virginia Tech.

“The goal of our group is take a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the sociological, ergonomic, and biological foundations of the physical and mental health challenges faced by these agricultural workers,” said Klein, a neuroscientist who has studied how environmental toxins such as agricultural pesticides affect the brain and nervous system.

Language and cross-cultural issues experienced by many Latino migrant farm workers can include isolation from family, hesitation to seek traditional healthcare avenues, limited access to affordable healthcare, and ability to interpret health and safety protocols, according to Klein.

Chronic exposure to fertilizers and pesticides represent another major threat to health and well-being on the farm, he said. Organophosphates and pyrethroids, as well as exposure to metals such as zinc, copper, and others can contribute to neurological dysfunction.

Organic threats are also present. For example, workers can develop green tobacco sickness, a disorder that causes weakness, dizziness, abdominal cramping, nausea, respiration and circulatory problems from handling wet tobacco when toxic amounts of nicotine are absorbed through their skin, he said.

The group, led by Tom Arcury, professor and vice chair for research, Department of Family and Community Medicine and director, Center for Worker Health, at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, says he plans to present a periodic series of informational events in the future. They have applied for a grant to hold a major conference in Winston-Salem, N.C., next year, and ultimately, they would like to establish a permanent Migrant Health Worker Center for the southeastern United States that is supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), according to Klein.

Other Virginia Tech faculty members participating in the program include Maury Nussbaum, professor, Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (DISE); Michael Agnew, assistant professor, Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering; and Jeffrey Bloomquist, professor, Department of Entomology. Other Wake Forest University faculty members participating the program include Sara Quandt, Joe Grzywacz, and Tim Howard.

For more information, contact Brad Klein at (540) 231-7398 or Thomas Arcury at (336) 716-9438.