This week, we focus on a study that found a third of migrant farmworker camps in eastern North Carolina had contaminated drinking water.
North Carolina's agricultural industry contributes 70 billion dollars annually to the state's economy. Many of the farms that grow corn, soybeans and sweet potatoes are right here in the east. But have you ever thought about how most local produce is harvested from the fields before it's delivered to stores? Director of Outreach for Greene County Healthcare Steve Davis has been working with migrant farmworkers for 16 years.
"Duplin County, Wayne County, Wilson County, Lenoir County, Pitt County, these are some of the more populated areas for migrant farmworkers."
North Carolina ranks fifth in the nation for its number of migrant farmworkers and eastern North Carolina has the highest concentration in the state. Many of the farmworkers in eastern North Carolina are coming from Mexico and other Latin American countries. They are contracted to work in America on a H2-A Visa, which allows them to stay in our country for up to a year.
"Those workers are usually brought here on buses to Vass, NC where the North Carolina Growers Association is located. Then there is a process thru the system where they are distributed throughout the state depending on what grower they're going to be going to."
Migrant farmworker labor allows us to enjoy fresh produce year-round. However, they are some of the lowest paid, least protected workers in the country and are often exposed to dangerous work environments and substandard living conditions.
"Agriculture, it only works in North Carolina with migrant and seasonal farmworkers."
Professor of Family and Community Medicine at Wake Forest University Dr. Thomas Arcury.
"Without them, many of the crops that we have would rot on the vine. So many of them would never be planted."
Dr. Arcury has studied the health of migrant farmworkers for almost two decades. His department at Wake Forest University studied farmworker camps in 16 eastern North Carolina counties. It found drinking water at about a third of them failed to meet current health standards and posed a risk to farmworkers and surrounding communities.
"Sixty-one of the one hundred and eighty-one camps, that's about a third, thirty four percent to be exact. There were total chloroform present and in two of those there were E. coli present which indicates that the water is not pure and clean and it is not safe to drink."
The Community-Based Participatory Approach to Farmworker Housing, Exposures & Health study did not determine if farm workers became sick from drinking that contaminated water. Rather, Dr. Arcury says the purpose was to determine the quality of farmworker housing and how it may be related to their health. While Dr. Arcury was conducting research on site, he says the majority of the farmworker camps his team visited had unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
"There was rust and not working kitchen facilities, there was trash thrown about, there were holes in the roof, there were holes in the wall, there were no locks on the doors, the bathroom facilities did not privacy, that is to say there were some places where there might be six toilets in a row with no dividers between them, there were six shower heads in a row or more with no privacy screens between them."
Dr. Arcury believes the North Carolina Department of Labor's lax standards for farmworker housing and lack of annual inspections could be the reason why many of the camps in eastern North Carolina fail to meet state quality requirements. The findings from the study were presented to the Department of Labor but Dr. Arcury doesn't think any changes will happen.
"Commissioner Berry and some of her staff members acknowledged that we had done a competent and actually high-quality study but it did not appear that they would be doing anymore inspections."
In compliance with the Migrant Housing Act, the Department of Labor conducts an inspection at camps prior to occupancy. In addition to the preoccupancy inspections, the bureau performs inspections of housing based on complaints and referrals. According to the Bureau Chief for the Agricultural Safety and Health Bureau Regina Cullen, it's the local Health Department responsibility to make sure the water is safe to drink.
"Sometimes Absolutely there are problems with the water Sometimes growers have dug new wells, sometimes they have chlorinated a water supply. If we are getting a call in the middle of the season saying hey there's a camp out here with contaminated water, we refer that to the local health department and they'll go out and check. "
Cullen says the North Carolina Department of Labor works closely with county health departments to test the water at farmworker camps. She adds if fecal material is found in the water supply, the NC Dept. of Labor is required to relocate those farm workers. In the study by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, coliform bacteria- which is an indicator of human and animal waste as well as disease-causing germs- was present in some of the water samples from camps in eastern North Carolina. Dr. Arcury could not release the names of the camps where E. Coli was found.
Next week, we hear the second part of this two part series which will focus on the responsibility farmers have to provide free housing to migrant farmworkers.