Potential Health Risks of Modern-Day Agriculture

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Written By Adeyemi Adetilewa

A number of exciting advancements have been seen within the agriculture industry over the last few decades. 

Although many of these developments have increased efficiency and output for farmers, it has also been observed that some of these advancements pose worrying health risks too. This is seen to be true of both the techniques used in farming and the chemicals that farmers routinely use. 

It has long been the case that those who work within the agriculture sector are at a heightened risk of certain health conditions. These conditions relate both to the physical nature of the work as well as the hazardous substances involved in farming. 

Agriculture at Risk

In 1988, the white paper ‘Agriculture at Risk’ was published. Throughout this document, it was recognized that there was a clear need to address the farming practices that are causing common health conditions.

Modern-Day Agriculture and 6 Big Potential Health RisksIt identified that common health concerns among farmworkers at the time were as follows:

  • Various cancers
  • Pesticide-related illnesses
  • Hearing loss from noisy machinery
  • Agricultural respiratory disease
  • Physical injury

Thankfully, vast improvements in farming health and safety practices have been made since the publication of this white paper. Although these improvements can be observed around the world, the health risks associated with modern-day agriculture remain prevalent and something to be aware of. 

Read on to learn more about these common health concerns and what must be done to protect against them.

1. Various Cancers

A huge amount of research has been conducted on how exposure to certain chemicals can increase the risk of developing cancer. This is true within the agricultural sector and in all other areas of industry. 

By causing disruption to hormones, increasing inflammation of tissue cells, and damaging DNA, many different chemicals have the potential to cause cancer. Certain pesticides used by farmers are high on this list of cancer-causing chemicals. 

Research shows that male farmers and other men who work closely with pesticides experience higher rates of prostate cancer than the general population. The data also shows that women who work closely with pesticides are more likely to develop ovarian cancer than the general population. Skin cancer can also be observed in increased rates among the same demographic of male and female farmworkers. 

Pesticides are not the only chemical of concern among farming communities. The popular herbicide Roundup, which is made by American corporation Monsanto, has been linked to thousands of cancer cases. 

Many of the people who believe their health has been impacted by the use of this herbicide have raised lawsuits against Monsanto. A round up lawsuit is helping those affected by this issue to seek justice and compensation.

The active ingredient in Roundup has been labeled as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and has been connected to thousands of patients developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma. 

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that originates in the white blood cells. These are the cells that make up the immune system. The disease causes certain white blood cells to grow abnormally, which can cause tumors to develop all around the body.

A number of chemicals are known to contribute to the onset of this type of cancer, with infections, some medications, and age also being risk factors. 

2. Pesticide-Related Illness

Pesticides are known to cause a range of adverse health effects. Some of these effects are short-term, whereas some can be observed several years after exposure. 

Modern-Day Agriculture and 6 Big Potential Health RisksThese issues include:

  • Rashes
  • Blindness
  • Blisters
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea

More serious health implications are also known to be caused by pesticides, including:

  • Reproductive damage
  • Brain toxicity
  • Immune system harm

It is understood that children are more at risk than adults when it comes to pesticide-related illnesses. This is especially concerning among communities that use child labor in their farming practices.

3. Hearing Loss from Noisy Machinery

Noise-induced hearing loss is a serious problem of modern-day agriculture. This is an issue that affects farmworkers of all ages.

This noise can be caused by a wide range of different farm machinery, such as tractors, grain dryers, and silage blowers. It is also common that intensive animal farming will create harmful noise levels, which is especially the case when it comes to pig farming. 

This hearing loss is most likely to be gradual over many years, and it is therefore not always possible to prevent against. 

By better understanding what a dangerous level of noise is, farmers and all other farmworkers can work to protect their hearing and combat this problem. Personal protective equipment must be made available to all farmworkers who are exposed to high levels of noise if they are to avoid risking their hearing. 

Protective equipment that can help to prevent damage caused by noisy machinery includes:

  • Earplugs
  • Earmuffs

It is also a good idea to place a protective noise barrier between workers and the source of noise where possible. Any stationary equipment can likely be covered with an insulating layer to reduce the amount of potentially harmful noise that is created. 

4. Agricultural Respiratory Disease

A number of respiratory diseases have been linked to modern-day farming practices. This is largely attributed to the organic dust and toxic chemicals that are often impossible to avoid.

The increasing intensity of animal agriculture is a huge contributor to the rise in respiratory irritants causing negative health outcomes for farmworkers. In fact, a huge number of these workers report clinical symptoms that are undoubtedly connected to exposure to animal gases and organic dust. 

Modern-Day Agriculture and 6 Big Potential Health RisksCommonly reported conditions include:

  • Organic dust toxic syndrome
  • Hypersensitivity pneumonia
  • Mucous membrane inflammation syndrome
  • Farmer’s lung

Organic dust comes from pollen, pesticides, mold, bacteria, chemicals, animal feed, animal hair, animal feathers, and animal feces. 

It can eventually become the case that the body is not able to fight off the harm caused by this organic dust, resulting in serious lung damage or death.

Personal protective equipment should be provided to all workers who are being exposed to organic dust, but this is unfortunately not always the case. Furthermore, dust masks may help to some degree but are not able to protect entirely against organic dust.

Figures from the National Safety Council highlighted that in 1990 alone, one-third of incapacitated farmworkers were unwell due to dust-related issues.

5. Musculoskeletal Conditions

It has been suggested that musculoskeletal disorders are the most prominent health problem posed by modern-day agriculture.

Farmworkers are exposed to a concerning number of hazards that can lead to musculoskeletal conditions. The prevalence of back pain among these workers is certainly observed as being much higher than in any other US industry. As with problems caused by noisy machinery, this is a problem that can develop over several years, making it very difficult to always protect against or prevent. 

A 1992 report revealed that the occupation of farming in the US is the leading cause of disability among women and the second leading cause among men. 

Perhaps most alarmingly, research has shown that many of the issues posing disability risk can be prevented with an ergonomic approach to farming techniques. This means that many of the injuries that are being experienced could possibly be avoided through the use of preventative measures. 

6. Physical Injury

Farmworkers are at risk of a number of physical injuries during their day-to-day work. In fact, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) has stated that agriculture is among the most dangerous industries in the country. 

More than 160 people who work in farming are injured every single day in the US. This equates to an average of over 58,000 injuries each year. Approximately 400 of these annual injuries will result in death.

Modern-Day Agriculture and 6 Big Potential Health RisksThe most common reasons for physical injuries on farms are:

  • Being crushed by equipment
  • Falling from equipment or platforms
  • Becoming entangled in farm equipment
  • Suffocating

Being crushed by equipment is the most common cause of physical injury in agriculture. This is usually caused by tractors rolling over and causing harm to the driver.

Many farm tasks involve being off the ground, which always comes with the potential for a fall. Even a fall from a slight height can result in serious or fatal injury depending on how the person lands.

Several farming machines pose a risk of entanglement, and this can easily result in disability, disfiguration, or death.

Suffocating is a serious risk when farmworkers fall into silos or giant containers containing grain. It is also possible, in extreme cases, to die by suffocation through overexposure to the gases from animal manure. 

Making Agriculture Safer

In order to avoid the potential health risks of modern-day agriculture, it is essential that this industry is made safer for all. Unfortunately, it is not possible to eradicate all of the risks associated with farming; however, more must be done to protect the lives of those who work in these roles.

By offering better training opportunities to farmworkers and by providing everyone with an adequate level of personal protective equipment, the industry can move towards safer practices. Without these advancements in worker safety, more people will continue to risk disability and death by working within the industry.

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