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Agricultural substance abuse

Strawberry Impact began with an invitation for participants to line up and take part in making their own strawberry shortcakes. While the desserts were delicious, the message behind them was not so sweet.

The event was hosted yesterday in Campus View East by Lambda Theta Alpha Latin sorority Inc. and the Latin American Student Association in conjunction with Farm Workers Awareness Week.

Most people have at least heard about the dangers of pesticides, but it seems those warnings are rarely taken to heart. Strawberry Impact aimed to heighten awareness of the risks that migrant workers take daily while working in the fields.

Speaker Margarita Romo, executive director of Farmworkers Self-Help, Inc. (FSH), was the highlight of the event. She has 35 years of experience both as a farm worker and an advocate against pesticide use.

“What we find with farm worker issues is that things come and go, but they don’t really change. It’s like a fad,” Romo said. “Until the consumer is affected, nobody cares.”

Romo then spoke of an instance in which she was affected by pesticides. She brought some oranges back from the field and – thinking that they were clean enough – didn’t rinse them off before eating them.

After eating them, her left eye immediately swelled shut and did not open for three days. She was also having significant difficulty breathing, which caused her to go to the hospital. There, she was injected with Benadryl.

“It’s hard to say how much pesticides affect a person because you can’t test people,” Romo said. “We test mice, and we know it affects them, but we don’t know to what extent they affect people.”

The main pesticide that Romo spoke about was methyl bromide. Methyl bromide has been proven to deplete the stratospheric ozone layer and has been classified as a Class-1 ozone-depleting substance by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the EPA Web site, as of Jan. 1, 2005, importation and production of the pesticide has been reduced.

Romo discussed the fact that growers in Florida and other states still use the substance.

“There are not enough inspectors in the field to make sure that things are right in the field for the farm workers, so things can be happening and nobody knows,” Romo said.

Methyl bromide has become an especially important issue in Florida.

“Florida uses more methyl bromide than anybody else per pound,” Romo said. “Florida uses three times more of the pesticide than California per acre.”

There are less harmful alternatives to methyl bromide, but farmers have been reluctant to use them. Romo thinks this is because methyl bromide is one of the cheapest pesticides available.

Romo has had some victories in her fight against pesticides. FSH has successfully passed the Farmworkers’ Right To Know Bill, which allows farm workers to know about the risks they will encounter in the fields. A toll-free hotline has also been established for workers to report incidents to the labor union.

While steps are being made in the right direction, the truth of the matter is that farm workers continue to be ignored.

“Farm workers are undocumented, so they don’t vote, so they have no voice,” Romo said.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The bill gives undocumented workers who are already in the country the opportunity to apply for temporary status, though they have to pay a fine in order to do so. Workers may also eventually earn complete legalization through the new program.

While farm workers are being presented with opportunities that were previously unavailable to them, Romo maintains that they still need any help they can get.

“We have to go; we have to speak out. If you have a good life, share it,” Romo said.

Those who would like more information or would like to know how they can help can call Romo directly at (352) 567-1432.