Central Valley

Study looks at health of farmworkers

MENDOTA -- When customers come into his store, Joseph Riofrio sees the positive effects of an ongoing study in Mendota on the health of farmworkers and their job risks.

Hispanic farmworkers are more concerned about diabetes and their sugar intake, something Riofrio did not see a few years ago.

"Now they're reading the sides of the foods and drinks for sugar content," said Riofrio, the owner of Westside Grocery and a Mendota City Council member.

That education process is one part of the MICASA study, which is being conducted by the University of California at Davis. MICASA is an acronym for "Mexican Immigration to California: Agricultural Safety and Acculturation."

Such a project is vital because of the role farmworkers play in the Valley's farming economy, study coordinators and health experts say.

"Without a healthy work force to support, the ag industry will suffer," said Laurie Primavera, associate director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute.

It's important to study and manage the health conditions of farmworkers, because their occupation is physically demanding and exposes them to dust and other environmental hazards, she said.

Studies such as MICASA can lead to family discussions about diabetes, breast cancer and other illnesses, health issues that are less expensive to treat early on, said Dr. Anna Marie Gonzalez, a physician with the Kerman Health Center.

"Just by talking about it does in some ways change behaviors," she said.

By changing their lifestyles, farmworkers also can set good examples for younger generations to seek better access to health care, which can help reduce public health costs in the future, Gonzalez said.

An additional benefit of the study is to help provide a safe and secure domestic food supply, said Norma Forbes, executive director of Fresno Healthy Communities Access Partners, a nonprofit that works to improve health-care access in the Valley.

Having healthy farmworkers "is key to achieving that," she said.

The project studies on-the-job hazards and health risks for farmworkers, their muscular and skeletal problems and their adjustment to American culture.

"We don't know what they suffer from and how they solve their health issues, so the goal is to find that out," said Kathleen O'Connor, who coordinated the study for three years before leaving in June for a teaching position at the University of Texas.

The study, which began in the summer of 2005, has been funded by the California Endowment and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The latter agency has committed funding for five more years.

The study will continue to focus on occupational hazards, respiratory health and injury risks, said Maria Stoecklin-Marois, a UC Davis staff research associate. The project also will look in greater depth at diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, she said.

In addition to interviewing about 875 people -- 422 farmworker families and about 40 male farm laborers -- the project's staff has conducted community forums on topics such as diabetes, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and breast cancer.

The study's findings may help determine public health policies, Stoecklin-Marois said.

"A large, well-funded study like ours will be read by those who have the power to make changes -- politicians, policy-makers, health professionals and so forth," she said.

The analysis and publication of the study's data thus far have not been completed, Stoecklin-Marois said.

However, preliminary findings show:

54% of farmworkers reported at least one musculoskeletal symptom, such as pain in the back, hip or knee.

60% said they had back pain that lasted for six weeks or more.

Body-mass index measurements taken from 177 participants showed more than 80% were classified as overweight or obese.

More than 40% reported allergies brought on by exposure to crops or animals.

Critical to the study initially was gaining the trust of residents in Mendota, a west Fresno County community, so local residents were hired to conduct interviews, study and community officials said.

Ana Cervantes and Alex Cervantes, a mother and son from nearby Firebaugh, went door to door in Mendota.

"At the beginning, people were scared and didn't want to open their doors," Alex Cervantes said.

Having interviewers who were more familiar helped, Ana Cervantes said.

"They know us," she said.

Cecilia M. Leon, one of the Mendota residents interviewed, once worked in the fields but now stays at home to care for her five children. Her husband, Honoreo, sprays fields, works on water systems and plants trees for a local farming company.

She has attended all of the forums and said the presentation on diabetes was the most helpful in reducing sugar in her family's diet.

"I always stayed away from those kinds of foods, but now with the information even more so," Leon said.

Mendota Council Member Riofrio said the study is needed because farmworkers contribute greatly to the region's agricultural economy.

"Look what this community is doing for the county, the state and the nation," he said.