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Educating families on the hazards of chemicals

By Sam Fahmy
University of Georgia

A father hugs his daughter after a long day of work. A mother washes a load of clothes. A child plays dress up in mommy's or daddy's work clothes.

For migrant agricultural workers, these typical scenes of family life can expose loved ones to dangerous pesticides brought in from the fields. Even a single pesticide exposure can cause a skin rash, nausea or vomiting.

Chronic exposure can cause nervous system problems and certain cancers. In all cases, the dangers are especially great to children and infants.

Simple precautions

To help migrant workers protect themselves and their families, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension will begin a bilingual outreach program that teaches migrant workers how simple precautions and proper laundering techniques can reduce the health risks that stem from pesticide exposures.

"We want them to see that if they take some very simple steps they can improve their children's health and protect themselves," said Sharon Gibson, the state coordinator for UGA's Children, Youth, and Families at Risk (CYFAR) program and a member of the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences faculty.

Beginning in September, FCS extension agents will place pamphlets in doctors' offices, child care facilities, churches and state aid offices that encourage workers to remove contaminated clothes and shoes before entering the home and to shake their clothes outside to dislodge pesticides. The pamphlets, along with posters at laundromats and grocery stores, will encourage people to wash work clothes separately from other clothes and to pre-rinse clothes and use high water levels, hot water and detergent to minimize cross-contamination.

One-on-one guidance

Spanish-speaking extension assistants will also provide in-home demonstrations of pesticide reduction methods during routine visits that also cover topics such as nutrition, money management and safety.

Karen Leonas, professor of textiles, merchandising and interiors, said that 97 percent of pesticide exposures come directly through the skin and that a single, acute exposure can be enough to sicken a child.

"For children, even a little bit is a problem because their skin is more porous and more open," Leonas said. "And children have lower body weights, so small amounts are going to impact them more significantly than adults."

The idea for the program originated in 2005, after the director of a rural health clinic spoke to Debbie Purvis, the Colquitt County FCS extension agent, about the widespread and long-standing problem of pesticide exposures in migrant workers and their families.

Meeting a need

Purvis relayed the community's need to the university, where Gibson's expertise in multicultural outreach was coupled with Leonas' expertise in protective apparel. Gibson and Leonas enlisted the help of June Griffin's technical writing class in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences to create a service learning experience for students.

"The students really understood the dangers that the children and families faced with these pesticides and put in more time and energy into what they produced than I've ever seen for any project for this class," said Griffin, now at the University of Nebraska. "They really felt like what they were doing was important, so they rose to that and got very involved."

The project, funded by a grant from the UGA Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach, will be piloted in heavily agricultural Colquitt, Candler, Houston, Sumter and Toombs counties and then widened to other Georgia counties.

"It's really giving a new emphasis to something that we in this area have known is a concern for quite some time," Purvis said. "By passing this information along to the families, we hope to protect our children and make them safer."

(Sam Fahmy is director of public relations for the University of Georgia's Office of the Senior Vice-president for Academic Affairs and Provost.)

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