ERIC Identifier: ED357907
Publication Date: 1993-01-00
Author: Huang, Gary
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Health Problems among Migrant Farmworkers' Children in the U.S.
GOOD HEALTH IS ESSENTIAL for the well-being of migrant farmworkers' children
and directly affects their educational performance. However, there is little
nationwide, accurate information on the health status of migrant farmworkers,
and even less on that of migrant children. Many baseline indicators of the
health status of this population, such as the population size, mortality and
survival rates, perinatal outcomes, and chronic diseases are unknown (Rust,
1990). The literature contains mostly local or regional data and often only
presents medical reasoning by referring to studies that were not directly
targeted on the migrant population. This digest summarizes available information
on migrant children's health status, drawn from literature reviews and major
primary research published in recent years.
MIGRANT CHILDREN'S HEALTH IN GENERAL
Migrants and their
families have severely poorer physical health compared to the general
population. The infant mortality rate among migrants is 125 percent higher than
the general population, and the life expectancy of migrant farmworkers is 49
years in contrast to the nation's average of 75 years (National Migrant
Resources Program, 1990). A survey of migrant women and children in Wisconsin
found a cumulative mortality rate by age 5 for the migrant sample of 46 deaths
per 1,000 children, 1.6 times greater than the rate of 29 deaths per 1,000
children for the U.S. population in the same period (Slesinger, Christenson, & Caultley, 1986). The same study also found a 10.9 percent rate for chronic
health conditions among migrant children, as compared to the same period's
national rate of 3 percent.
Commonly reported health problems among migrant farmworkers and their
children include: lower height, weight, and other anthropometric attainments;
respiratory disease; parasitic conditions; skin infections; chronic diarrhea;
vitamin A deficiency; and undiagnosed congenital and developmental problems. In
addition, accidental injuries, heat-related illness, and chemical poisoning are
highly prevalent among the population (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1989;
Shotland, 1989; Koch, 1988; National Rural Health Care Association, 1986). With
some overlaps, these problems may be grouped into two categories:
occupation-related health problems and poverty-related health problems.
OCCUPATION-RELATED HEALTH PROBLEMS
Agriculture is the most
dangerous occupation in the U.S., with about 23,800 children and adolescents
injured and 300 deaths from these injuries between 1979 and 1983 (General
Accounting Office, 1992; National Rural Health Care Association, 1986). Legal
protection for migrant workers and their children, however, has been limited
(National Migrant Resources Program, 1990; General Accounting Office, 1992).
About 25 percent of farm labor in the U.S. is performed by children (Farmworker
Justice Fund, 1990). Studies show that at least one-third of migrant children,
as young as 10, work on farms to help earn family incomes; others may not be
hired laborers but are in the fields to help their parents or simply due to a
lack of child care services (General Accounting Office, 1992).
The health of these children is at high risk from farm injuries and pesticide
poisoning. Agricultural work is associated with various types of accidents:
falling from heights; drowning in ditches; and injuries from knives, machetes,
faulty equipment, and vehicles (National Rural Health Care Association, 1986).
Exposure to pesticides (including touching the residues, breathing the air,
drinking the water, and eating the food) plus the lack of sanitary facilities
(for washing, drinking water, and toilets) often cause acute effects such as
irritation in the respiratory tract, skin, and eyes; systemic poisoning; and
sometimes death. Chronic effects include cancer, birth defects, and
neuropsychological problems (General Accounting Office, 1992). Children are more
susceptible than adults because they absorb more pesticides per pound of body
weight and their developing nervous systems and organs are vulnerable. A recent
study in New York State (Pollack, 1990) found over 40 percent of interviewed
children had worked in fields that were wet with pesticides, and 40 percent had
been sprayed while in the fields. Cases of pesticide poisoning among migrant
workers were repeatedly reported (Farmworker Justice Fund, 1990).
Presence in the fields also causes children many other health problems that
occur frequently among their parents, particularly heat-related illness (heat
stroke, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion) and dermatitis (skin rash). The
effects of skin rash are often intensified because of sun, sweat, and lack of
Occupational hazards also affect migrant children's health by generating
maternal health problems. Exposure to pesticides during pregnancy is found to be
associated with fetal limb defects and Down's syndrome. Human milk may be
contaminated as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals. Urinary tract
infections are common among migrant farmworkers due to the lack of toilet
facilities; they are particularly prevalent among women because their shorter
urethra allows bacteria easy access to the bladder. These infections during
pregnancy may contribute to miscarriages, fetal or neonatal deaths, and
premature delivery (National Rural Health Care Association, 1986).
POVERTY-RELATED HEALTH PROBLEMS
The poverty status of
migrant families is well documented (White-Means, 1991). Most recent data show
one-half of migrant farmworker families have incomes below the poverty level
despite the high rate of families with two wage earners (Department of Labor,
1991). Poverty leads to poor nutrition and sanitation, which contribute to
abnormally high rates of chronic illnesses and acute problems among migrant
Malnutrition is associated with poverty. Migrant children commonly suffer
vitamin A, calcium, and iron deficiencies (Koch, 1988; National Rural Health
Care Association, 1986). A survey of Florida migrant workers (Shotland, 1989)
found that many migrant families did not receive food stamps despite their
eligibility; that 30.6 percent of the respondents had experienced a period
during which they ran out or had a shortage of food; and that 43.8 percent of
them had seasonal food shortages. Ethnically and regionally specific dietary
inadequacies include zinc, riboflavin, vitamins B6 and B12, and folate. The
study also says that females among the ethnic groups consumed inadequate
nutrients significantly more frequently than males. An implication is that
migrant children may suffer from maternal malnutrition.
Closely related to both malnutrition and poverty, another health problem for
migrant children is parasitic infestations, including bacterial, protozoan,
viral, and worm infections. A 1983 regional survey of migrant women and children
found that 34.2 percent of the sample were infected with 12 different types of
intestinal parasites, with Haitians having the highest rate (45.2%), Hispanics
second (30%), and American Blacks lowest (23.2%) (cited by Shotland, 1989).
Studies in other regions identified a comparable prevalence of infections. The
estimated parasitic infections rate for migrants is 11 to 59 times higher than
that of the general U.S. population (National Rural Health Care Association,
Parasitic infections are detrimental to migrant children's nutrition status
in addition to the harm of inadequate or imbalanced dietary intakes. They may
also cause acute diarrhea and vomiting. Especially threatening to children is
the fact that parasites radically decrease iron absorption. Moreover, pathogenic
parasites, which are carried by over half of the parasitic-infected migrant
population, may generate more severe physiological disorders (Shotland, 1989).
Respiratory diseases are also related to poverty and poor sanitation.
Problems such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis
occur very frequently among the migrant population (Koch, 1988; Schneider,
1986). Death rates from influenza and pneumonia are 20 to 200 percent higher
among migrant farmworkers than among the general population (Shotland, 1989).
Another commonly untreated health problem among migrant children is dental
caries (Koch, 1988; Schneider, 1986). A study in California found that dental
care was the most common health need among migrant children before they enter
kindergarten; up to 21 percent of migrants had acute dental problems (Good,
1990). A Wisconsin study reported that only one-third of migrant children had
annual dental examinations, compared to the national rate of one-half
(Slesinger, et al., 1986).
Despite some improvement since the 1960s,
migrant children are still the most disadvantaged group among the U.S. youth
population. To improve their health conditions, several approaches have been
proposed in the literature:
strengthening the legal protections for child labor from agricultural hazards;
providing day care services for migrant farmworkers;
incorporating culturally sensitive practices as a key strategy in planning and
recruiting outreach staff with backgrounds similar to those of migrant groups;
integrating the efforts of various professionals, particularly medical
professionals, social workers, educators, and legal professionals to help
migrant families and children;
providing preventive measures, particularly in the areas of residential
sanitation, diet, and dental care;
conducting comprehensive assessments of migrant health needs; and
continuing the development of MSRTS as a nationwide tracking system to help
schools and migrant programs identify and serve the population.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (1989). Health
care for children of migrant families. Pediatrics, 84(4), 739-740.
Department of Labor. (1991). Findings from the National Agricultural Workers
Survey (NAWS) 1990. Washington, DC: Author.
Farmworker Justice Fund, Inc. (1990). Testimony for hearing record on
"Environmental toxins and children: Exploring the risks." In Congress of the
U.S. Environmental toxins and children: Exploring the risks, Part II, Hearing
held in Washington, DC before the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and
Families. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. ED 336 178.
General Accounting Office. 1992. Hired farmworkers health and well-being at
risk. Washington, DC: Author.
Good, M. E. (1990). A needs assessment: The health status of migrant children
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Koch, D. (1988). Migrant day care and the health status of migrant
preschoolers: A review of the literature. Journal of Community Health Nursing,
National Migrant Resources Program, Inc. (1990). Migrant and seasonal
farmworkers health objectives for the year 2000. Document in progress. Austin,
TX: Author. ED 331 687.
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City, MO: Author. ED 292 594.
Pollack, Susan (1990). Pesticide exposure and working conditions among
migrant farmworker children in western New York State. Paper presented at the
American Public Health Association Annual Meeting.
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Schneider, B. (1986). Providing for the health needs of migrant children.
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Shotland, J. (1989). Full fields, empty cupboards: The nutritional status of
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Slesinger, D. P., Christenson, B. A., & Caultley, E. (1986). Health and
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farmworkers in New York State, 209-223. Ithaca, NY: State University of New
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