This was one of five fictitious scenarios acted out by high school students at the end of East Tennessee State University’s Environmental Health Leadership Institute last summer.
Led by ETSU faculty members and student counselors, the institute was designed to educate local Hispanic teenagers about agricultural health and safety.
Each year, 10,000 to 20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide poisonings occur among U.S. agricultural workers. This is according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although pesticide safety was one of the camp’s most-discussed topics, other problems such as stoop labor, water quality and heat stress were also covered.
“We reasoned that if it would take half a generation to solve these problems, why not start training tomorrow’s leaders?” said Ken Silver, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health at ETSU and one of the organizers of the camp.
The idea for the institute first took shape about two years ago, when Silver and his colleagues received a grant from the Tennessee Board of Regents Diversity Program.
Silver said one of the main reasons for holding the camp was the EPA’s change in agricultural worker protection standards, which were last updated 20 years ago.
The new standards, which take effect in January 2017, will prohibit children under the age of 18 from handling pesticides. This is the first-ever minimum age requirement set by the EPA.
The standards will also require workers to complete expanded training and use more effective protection gear.
“What we have learned is the pesticide training they get takes the form of a video tape being popped into a VHS player…,” Silver said. “So there has got to be a better way to educate and inform employees about what they’re working with and what precautions the employer should have available.”
The weeklong institute welcomed Hispanic students from Science Hill, Unicoi County, Morristown East and other high schools. Throughout the week, students stayed on the ETSU campus, learning about pesticides, heat stress, lead poisoning and other topics.
"We reasoned that if it would take half a generation to solve these problems, why not start training tomorrow's leaders?"
– Ken Silver
Students also learned about safety data sheets, which provide detailed information about chemicals to farm workers, and restricted entry intervals, or REIs, which mandate how long people must wait before harvesting crops after pesticides are sprayed.
Before the EPA’s new regulations took effect, Silver said rules were not as strict, leading to dangerous working conditions.
Now, workers are required to complete yearly training and post more no-entry signs around areas where the most hazardous pesticides have been sprayed.
“A lot of sloppiness has gone down over the years, but the new EPA regulations are quite stringent now,” Silver said. “So we hope to get the phrase ‘REI’ into the local vocabulary, and we want the kids to know how to look it up and explain it, and how to look up a lot of other things and explain them.”
ETSU graduate student Maria Aparcero served as coordinator and as a camp counselor. She said the students enjoyed career exploration day, during which they visited several academic departments on campus.
She said they also liked working on their final group projects, which were meant to teach the audience about the dangers of lead poisoning, pesticides, the Zika virus and other issues.
“We divided all the kids into five groups, with five students per group, and they could do whatever they wanted,” Aparcero said. “Some of them are going to do a play, or they’re going to do a video clip, a song or a quiz show.”
Though some students attended the camp to learn more about the environment, others attended to learn about career options in a college setting, including high school junior Kitzia Esquivel.
Esquivel, who has her sights set on a career in surgery, hoped the camp would help her discover her true passion.
“I thought it was pretty cool because I wasn’t sure,” Esquivel said. “I knew I wanted to go into the medical field, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a trauma surgeon or a different kind, and I thought this would help me figure it out.”
High school sophomore Eleazar Orona Mijares said the entire camp was a learning experience.
“I’ve never really thought about the environment,” he said. “It’s never really crossed my mind, ever, and I saw the opportunity to come to this camp and thought maybe I’d learn something from it.”
His biggest takeaway from the camp was that pesticides are more dangerous than he once thought. To show what they learned about pesticides, he and his group created the skit about Lucy and her father. They hoped to convey the importance of wearing masks and protective clothing and obeying REIs.
Silver said he hopes the activities tested during the camp will lead to the creation of better training materials for farmworkers.
“If it goes really well and additional research could be found,” Silver said, “maybe the stars of the Environmental Health Leadership Institute can help us present it, and I can be the guy behind the scenes.”
Above right: Students examine internal organs to see how pesticides affect them, under the direction of volunteer Rachel Kelley. Kelley is a second-year medical student at University of California, San Francisco, who was spending the summer working at a rural health clinic in East Tennessee. Photo by Mary Alice Basconi