Life on the farm ain’t easy: the dawn-to-dusk hours, the physical toll of work in the fields, the variability of the weather, and the incredibly low net pay are just some of the factors that call to mind the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s 1963 “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” the tale of a desperately impoverished South Dakota farmer who ends up killing his wife, his five children, and finally himself.
The Bard’s song might be decades-old, but new evidence compiled by researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that serious depression among farmers is a real contemporary issue, one that in some cases can lead to farmworker suicide. The culprit, according to the NIH? Pesticides, which farmers both inhale and absorb through their skin as they apply them to their crops. These dangerous chemicals, researchers found, alter farmers’ brain chemistry, increasing their risk of depression by up to 90 percent.
To produce their report, released last month, a group of eight NIH epidemiologists surveyed 21,208 pesticide applicators in Iowa and North Carolina, asking them to report whether they had received a doctor’s diagnosis of depression between 1993 and 2010. In total, 1,701—eight percent—said they had. The researchers, who also examined the specific chemicals used by farmers to kill insects, weeds, and fungi, found that farmers who used one class of common insecticide were up to 90 percent more likely to have been diagnosed depression, and that farmers who used common fumigants were up to 80 percent more likely to be depressed.
“Plenty of these studies have been done in the past, and basically all of them come to the conclusion that exposure to pesticides leads to neurological effects which in turn cause a depression that can increase the likelihood of suicide,” says Melanie Forti, director of health and safety programs at the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, a farmer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “We’re not a scientific program, so we haven’t done any of our own studies, but we have years of anecdotal information that support the same conclusion.”