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New Safeguards Seek to Protect Farmworkers from Pesticides
EPA to update Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Pesticides after more than 20 years of problems
WASHINGTON - February 21 - The federal Worker Protection Standard, first adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1992 to protect farmworkers, is notoriously weak and difficult to enforce. Today, EPA is announcing proposed revisions to the rule. Farmworker and public health advocates from across the country are applauding the long overdue update, and will be carefully reviewing the new rules to ensure they adequately protect farmworkers and their families.
“We are raising the voices of farmworkers,” said Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida. “We hear them every day in our offices as they talk about the working conditions they are subjected to, and about their symptoms from pesticide exposure. People should not have to risk their health so the rest of us can have fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Last week 52 members of Congress, led by Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Linda Sanchez of California, sent a letter EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy urging release the proposed rule, stating that the current agricultural worker protection standard is "limited" and "insufficient" to protect workers from the hazards of handling pesticides. The same week, California-based Pesticide Action Network (PAN) submitted a petition to McCarthy to strengthen the Worker Protection Standard, signed by more than 18,000 concerned citizens.
“Updates to this rule have been stalled at EPA for more than a decade,” notes Dr. Margaret Reeves, Senior Scientist with PAN. “Meanwhile, farmworkers and their families have been exposed to health-harming pesticides that can have lifelong effects — while regulators turned a blind eye. We hope these new rules will be strong enough to give farmworkers the safe and healthy workplace they deserve.”
The impacts of pesticide exposure are well documented. In North Carolina and Florida, three babies born in 2005 brought to light in the most painful way the dangers pesticide exposures pose to farmworkers and their children. All three babies were born with severe birth defects. Their mothers had worked together on tomato farms for the produce company Ag-Mart in both states. State investigators found hundreds of instances of pesticide safety problems, but were unable to prove pesticide violations in the case because of loopholes in the Worker Protection Standard – the very pesticide rules they were trying to enforce.
The current standard does not require record-keeping to document whether pesticide rules have actually been followed – that loophole doomed the Ag-Mart case. The Worker Protection Standard requires only minimal training on the risks that pesticide exposure can pose to workers’ children and families, so many workers don’t find out about those hazards until after the worst has happened.
The Worker Protection Standard was also designed with only adult workers in mind. But agriculture is different from most other industries in that it allows children to join labor crews at 12 years old – even at 10 in some crops – and these children are exposed to pesticides on the job. Yesenia Cuello and her sister Neftali began working on tobacco and sweet potato farms in North Carolina when Yesenia was 14 and Neftali was 12. Both girls report that they saw pesticides used nearby and were even exposed to the drift, but never knew what pesticides were. “We never heard the word ‘pesticide’ or had a safety training until four years later,” says Yesenia. “I assumed it was some kind of fertilizer.”
An estimated 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States. The nation’s 2–2.4 million farmworkers face the greatest threat from the health impacts of these chemicals. Ten to twenty thousand farmworkers are injured by pesticides on the job every year in the US. Short-term effects of pesticide exposures can include skin and eye injuries, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems, and even death. Long-term exposure on the job can increase the risk of serious chronic health problems such as cancer, birth defects, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease for farmworkers, their families and their children.
The proposed revisions to the Worker Protection Standard can be viewed on EPA’s website. The revisions will also be posted in the Federal Register in early March, at which time the EPA will begin accepting comments from the public for 90 days.