Sarah Quandt ’73 speaks for equal health rights at honors convocation

Maija Anstine

(Photo by Fanny Lau)

Medical Anthropologist Sarah Quandt ’73 presented the convocation address at the 2011 Honors Convocation on May 17.

The convocation opened with performances by Lecturer of Music and University Organist Kathrine Handford, Associate Professor of Music and Teacher of Violin Samantha George, Associate Professor of Music and Teacher of Viola Matthew Michelic and Associate Professor of Music and Teacher of String Bass Mark Urness, who performed works by Franck and Proto.

At the convocation, 105 students were recognized for earning prizes in disciplines ranging from classics and anthropology to mathematics and music. Two faculty members were also recognized for their exceptional contributions this year, and 94 students were acknowledged for their elections to Mortar Board, Lambda Sigma, Phi Beta Kappa and Pi Kappa Lambda.

In her address, “It Takes a Community: Collaborating to Reduce Health Disparities in the U.S.,” Quandt discussed “the presence of disease or health outcomes in different population segments.”

Quandt has studied worker health issues in North Carolina since 1994, and used several anecdotes from her experience with the Latino farm worker population there to illustrate health issues locally and nationally.

Her first anecdote was about a tobacco farm worker who developed nicotine poisoning due to excessive exposure to tobacco leaves.

“Up until 30 years ago,” Quandt explained, “tobacco production was controlled by the government, and companies had production allotments. Today that allotment system is gone and growers can grow as much as they think they can sell.” She noted how growers have started planting rows tighter together to encourage maximum nicotine production within the plants, a toxic step for sweat-soaked workers who can easily absorb excessive amounts of the chemical.

She also told the story of a mother whose child was born missing both arms and legs after she spent months during her pregnancy working in tomato fields operated by Ag-Mart. The produce corporation has since been convicted of deliberately violating state pesticide regulations with the logic that “it’s less expensive to pay the fines than to obey the law,” as Quandt explained.

“Farm workers are exposed to cocktails of pesticides that interact and amplify each others’ effects. Cognitive function suffers with pesticide exposure,” she said. “These workers have no choice, they have to work to be paid, and they’re here to make money.”

The work Quandt and her colleagues do in North Carolina has had national effects. After her research on green tobacco sickness she assisted Michael Crosby, a Milwaukee priest, in producing a motion to create human rights protocol for Philip Morris, the nation’s largest tobacco company. The motion passed, and now companies are required to inform their workers of these dangers.

All of Quandt’s anecdotes shared one theme: “They’re all experiencing health situations they don’t understand… due to broader socio-cultural issues that have come to define the U.S.”

“As graduates from Lawrence, you will be particularly qualified to eliminate health disparities,” she encouraged, noting the opportunities at Lawrence to “learn how to learn… be active — not passive — listeners, be involved in a broad range of disciplines, to be comfortable in a diverse community of people.”

“Clearly there needs to be a political will to change,” she concluded. “We need to assert that health is a human right.”