Bhangra delivers safe farming message

Anne-Marie Nicol is getting creative with communicating health risks to members of British Columbia’s farming community – Bollywood-style.

While conducting her post-doctoral research in the Fraser Valley, Anne-Marie Nicol, now an assistant professor in the School of Environmental Health, found that women and other family members are exposed to as much pesticide as full-time farmers.

Para-occupational exposure, or second-hand exposure, where proximity to work sites is as dangerous as active participation in the work, has been well documented in industries such as lead and asbestos mining and is sometimes referred to as the “subtle killer.”

“But it hasn’t been addressed or studied as closely in the agriculture industry,” says Nicol. “And you don’t have to travel very far from downtown Vancouver to witness it first hand.”

Many women participate in farm work, including mixing pesticides. If not handled properly, protective clothing worn into the household could transport and contaminate other clothing and household items. Long-term exposure to pesticides has been shown to be associated with dermatitis, neurological damage and higher rates of cancer, such as Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

While the government promotes safe pesticide handling guidelines to farmers, the information is not effectively reaching many women who live or work on farmland—grandmothers, wives, daughters—because they don’t self-identify as farmers, says Nicol, who specializes in health information communication.

“They are essentially part of an invisible, unpaid work force, and when you consider that many of them are new immigrants to Canada and may be illiterate both in English and Punjabi, they are quite literally falling through the cracks.”

That is, until Nicol came up with an entertaining and culturally relevant solution.

“Flyers won’t do the trick, and the current standard of guidelines written in English, posted on a web site aimed at male farmers certainly won’t, either” says Nicol. “But it was clear from speaking with farm women in the Fraser Valley that the majority watch and enjoy Bollywood-style productions.”

Nicol enlisted the help of Punjabi-speaking UBC students, Simon Fraser University’s Media Analysis Lab in the School of Communication and its award-winning N.S.M. Bhangra dancers to produce a TV spot featuring Bollywood actress and Leo Award-winner Balinder Johal. The public service announcement depicts a mother-daughter conversation (with Johal and her real life daughter, Michelle) about safe washing instructions in Punjabi, complete with a Bollywood dance sequence.

“We chose laundry as a gateway to discussing health issues with women because it’s an activity that falls squarely in the female domain in the community,” says Nicol. “We were lucky to have such a recognizable actor as Balinder, who donated her time on the project—we couldn’t have afforded her usual fees.

“It was freezing cold the day of filming and the dancers were in these beautiful but very thin costumes. I was extremely moved by their dedication to the project.”

In addition to showing the TV spots on Shaw TV, Nicol has also brought the message to local gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, grocery stores and to the recent Diwali festival. Helping her deliver the message were the SFU dancers and some eye-catching purple rubber gloves.

“The use of rubber gloves is vital in limiting contamination and we really wanted something that would appeal to women—the decision to pick the purple ones was pretty easy and unanimous,” says Nicol, who will evaluate the effectiveness of these tools in the spring.

The project has already inspired one of Nicol’s students to look more closely at the role of turbans as a potential source of environmental contaminants and could inform future endeavors to communicate health information to specific communities.

Wash with Care was supported in part by the Vancouver Foundation and has developed into a team project which includes SFU’s David Murphy (Communications) and Kitty Corbett (Health Sciences), and Satwinder Bains (Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies) from the University of the Fraser Valley.

For more information and to view  the public service announcements,  visit

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UBC Reports | Vol. 56 | No. 12 | Dec. 3, 2010

Bollywood lends help—with purple rubber gloves—to educate about safe washing instructions. Photos courtesy of Wash With Care project.

Bollywood lends help—with purple rubber gloves—to educate about safe washing instructions. Photos courtesy of Wash With Care project.

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Wash with care:

Safe-laundering instructions for protective clothing

Protective clothing should be washed after each use and separate from regular laundry. Many pesticides are made to adhere to crop surfaces and withstand rain.

  1. Use hot water
  2. Use the highest water level and longest wash cycle
  3. Use strong detergent
  4. Hang clothes to dry in the sun
  5. Run washing machine through an empty cycle after use
  6. Always use gloves

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