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There are many hardships in the life of American farmworkers. One of the more shocking and pernicious of these is highlighted in a recent Fresno Bee series called “Don’t Drink the Water”: Many rural residents don’t have access to safe, clean drinking water.

Reporter Mark Gross went to Tulare Country in California’s Central Valley (our nation’s produce capital) to investigate reports of high nitrate contamination. This is the same area a U.N. water quality investigator visited recently, after stopping in Bangladesh, Uruguay, and Namibia to look at “social problems linked to a lack of access to clean water.” Things were so bad in Tulare County, said the U.N. investigator, that he “urged state and federal authorities to consider healthy drinking water a human right and clean up the mess.”

An estimated 95 percent of Central Valley residents drink bottled water, spending far more of their income on water than most people. Gross cites a study from the University of California, Berkeley and published in Environmental Health Perspectives that determined “poverty-level Latinos are the population group most affected by the degraded water. ‘Those who are the least able to cope with drinking water contamination face some of the biggest exposure threats,’ said lead researcher Carolina Balasz.”

Nitrates can cause dizziness, gastrointestinal problems, a potentially fatal infant disease called methemoglobinemia (aka “blue-baby syndrome”), and possibly cancer. While nitrates are naturally occurring (often coming from decaying vegetable matter), it’s the Central Valley’s vast agricultural production that has caused the contamination problem there. While manure from factory livestock farms was once considered the main culprit, attention has now shifted to nitrogen fertilizer runoff from farm fields.