By Jessica Felix-Romero, Farmworker Justice
I had the privilege of participating in the East Coast Migrant Stream Forum for Agricultural Worker Health in Atlanta earlier this month. The annual Forum brings together outreach workers, advocates, medical professionals and many others who provide crucial health services to farmworkers. It is a great opportunity to learn from those who are working with farmworker communities on the ground, as well as share updates on what is happening at the federal level.
This year, one of my presentations focused on pesticide safety, including recent revisions to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS) and best practices for identifying and treating pesticide exposure. I co-presented with Alma Galvan, Senior Program Manager of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Migrant Clinicians Network (MCN), and Dr. Jose Rodriguez, MD, Chief Medical Officer at the Castañer General Hospital in Lares, Puerto Rico.
This was where the professional and personal collided for me. You see, I was born and raised in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, a small town on the island’s west side, not too far from where Dr. Rodriguez lives and works. My parents, siblings, extended family and friends still live on the island. As a teenager, I often went camping in the mountains of Adjuntas, one of the five rural municipalities covered by Castañer General Hospital’s services.
During the three weeks between Hurricane Maria’s landfall and our scheduled presentation, communication with Dr. Rodriguez, as with a lot of people on the island, was virtually nonexistent. We had resigned ourselves to doing the presentation without him, and then just a few days before the event, he was able to let us know that he was still planning to come. His arrival in Atlanta was no small feat given conditions on the island, but then again, Dr. Rodriguez is accustomed to producing miraculous results amidst seemingly hopeless circumstances.
Earlier this year, Hospital General Castañer received the EPA’s Environmental Champion Award for outstanding commitment to protecting and enhancing environmental quality and public health. Dr. Rodriguez is a leader in the identification and treatment of pesticide exposure, as well as other occupational health issues. He is a dedicated family physician and passionate advocate for his community. During our presentation, Dr. Rodriguez stressed the important role of community health advocates and local hospitals in identifying pesticide incidents and gathering and recording key information that can serve not only for more effective medical treatment, but also to support future legal and advocacy work.
During the Forum’s plenary session, Dr. Rodriguez also shared pictures of his hometown – bare trees, downed electricity poles, streams where roads used to be. He highlighted the most recent official statistics – almost half the population on the island still had no running water, and approximately 90% still had no electricity. The numbers themselves are staggering, but the many human examples of what those numbers mean are truly overwhelming. Another staggering statistic: approximately 80% of the island’s agriculture was decimated by the storm, including the island’s coffee, tropical fruit and poultry farms. As I write this a week later, I would love to report that much progress has been made, but based on information from both family updates and media reporting, that would be woefully inaccurate.
Dr. Rodriguez also cautioned all of us about the impending public health emergency that looms over the island as recovery advances in fits and starts. He worries that the floods and landslides will lead to pesticide drift in both soil and water, including wells. Mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika, where much progress had been made before, may reappear as stagnant water remains. A lack of basic hygiene may give rise to communicable diseases, while malnutrition and a lack of potable water, especially among children and the elderly, will inevitably have significant health effects. Outbreaks of conjunctivitis and leptospirosis (a bacterial disease caused by contaminated water) have already been reported and many hospitals are only able to operate partially due to the lack of electricity and a shortage of medical supplies.
Amidst this dire picture, I am reassured by the work of individuals like Dr. Rodriguez, countless heroes who may never get recognition from a federal agency for providing such essential services to their communities, including farmworkers. The hurricane in Puerto Rico and other recent natural disasters in California, Texas and Florida have quite literally laid bare many of the inequalities and dangers that farmworkers face every day. This past month has been very difficult for many, but it has also reaffirmed the importance of fighting for farmworker communities – communities who are intimately familiar with both nature’s capacity for capriciousness and humans’ capacity for resilience.
You can donate to Puerto Rican relief efforts through the Hispanic Federation.