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Nation's Farmworkers Demand Protections From Toxic Pesticides

20-year delay on updating EPA rules leaves millions at risk

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Fruit pickers in Oxnard, California. (Photo: Alex Proimos/cc/flickr) Farmworkers and their advocates from across the nation descended on Washington, DC this week to demand better protection from the pesticides they're exposed to while picking the nation's produce.

Their specific target, the Center for Public Integrity reports, is

The Worker Protection Standard, a set of EPA rules meant to reduce the risk of pesticide-related injuries for some 2.5 million agricultural workers and pesticide handlers at 600,000 agricultural establishments nationwide.

Yet, even as the perils of pesticides have become better known, EPA protections have not been seriously updated in 20 years.

“Each year pesticide exposure poisons as many as 20,000 farmworkers," stated Virginia Ruiz, Director of Occupational and Environmental Health for the advocacy group Farmworker Justice.   “These injuries, illnesses, and deaths are preventable by taking the necessary steps to protect our farmworkers and their families,” she continued.

Farmworker Justice profiles some of these dangers in their new report, Exposed and Ignored: How Pesticides are Endangering Our Nation’s Farmworkers.  In it, they list a frightening number health problems from pesticide exposure:

Short-term (acute) effects may include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, blindness, nausea, dizziness, headaches, coma, and even death. Some long-term health impacts are delayed or not immediately apparent such as, infertility, birth defects, endocrine disruption, neurological disorders, and cancer.

In an op-ed in The Hill this week, Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, writes:

The nature of working with crops likely always will involve some occupational danger.  But farmworkers deserve more than the meager set of protections we offer them now.  Simple revisions to the Worker Protection Standard should require more frequent and thorough safety training on farms, ensure that workers receive information about the specific pesticides used in their work, and require medical monitoring of workers handling toxic pesticides.

Moreover, it’s time to require Spanish translation of pesticide labels and implement buffer zones around schools and residential areas to protect farmworker communities from aerial drift.  These basic protections are hardly unwarranted for the men and women who put food on our tables every day.

“People seem to care if their tennis shoes are produced by exploited child labor in Asia,” said Tom Thornburg, managing attorney for Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan. “They should also be concerned whether their blueberries are being produced in situations that are causing workers to become poisoned.”

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