Here’s Your Chance to Protect Farmworkers From Pesticides

The EPA is taking comments on long-awaited revisions to federal protection standards.

Workers on a strawberry farm in Ventura, Calif., Dec. 21, 2013. (Photo: Eric Thayer/Reuters)

May 30, 2014· 3 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

As a child in Pierson, Fla., Graciela worked alongside her mother in huge greenhouses that grew ferns, running through long rows of plants and jumping in and out of sprinklers.

When Graciela grew up and had children of her own, she couldn’t afford to leave them in day care. Wanting to spend as much time with them as she could, she brought her daughters with her to play in the ferneries as she worked, watching them run through the sprinklers as she had many years before.

What she and her family didn’t know was that the same sprinklers that cooled the air and dispensed water were often used to spray pesticides on the lush greenery produced in Pierson. It wasn’t until Graciela’s daughter Celia was diagnosed with leukemia at age 15 that her family learned of the potential health effects of pesticide exposure. Although Celia’s doctors couldn’t be sure what had caused the leukemia, they noted that exposure to pesticides at a young age had created unnecessary risk.

A recent report from Farmworker Justice told Graciela’s story and highlighted the dangers faced by families who labor on farm fields and in greenhouses, including pesticide poisoning, chronic respiratory challenges, birth defects, neurological problems, and certain cancers.

Graciela is just one of 2 million farmworkers toiling in America’s agricultural fields to put food on our tables. Together, they are exposed to more than 5 billion pounds of pesticides annually.

The danger is not just in the fields: Several studies in recent years have highlighted the significant exposure pathways that farmworkers bring home with them on their clothing, equipment, and vehicles. One study found that prenatal exposure to pesticides can lead to neurological problems that affect not only the children of farmworkers but their grandchildren too.

Workers like Graciela and her family are often unaware of the potential health consequences of prolonged contact with pesticides, and of how to protect themselves and their loved ones from harm, according to Farmworker Justice.

But hazards like these could soon be substantially reduced, thanks to revised government regulations. The EPA is now accepting public comments on proposed updates to the federal standard that exists to protect agricultural workers from pesticide exposure.

Pesticide use in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent years, as super weeds and hardy insects have evolved alongside genetically modified crops. The EPA’s standard hasn’t been updated since 1992; the move to revise it has been lauded by farmworker advocates, though not everyone agrees that the new version is stringent enough to protect these vulnerable communities.

The new Worker Protection Standard would implement some common-sense measures, such as setting buffer zones around crops that have recently been sprayed, requiring that agricultural workers undergo pesticide safety training each year (instead of every five), and ensuring that workers have information about how to reduce their take-home exposure to pesticides lingering on their clothing.

“We congratulate this administration for advancing these critically important protections, and we are encouraged that these protections will go a long way to protecting the safety and health of the workforce,” said Karen Mountain, CEO of the Migrant Clinicians Network.

The new standard would also close some gaping loopholes. Employers in most states don’t have to demonstrate they’ve provided safety training or document where specific pesticides have been sprayed. The new WPS would require such records nationwide.

Another change would set a minimum age for pesticide handlers at 16. The current version allows children of any age to mix, load, and apply pesticides to crops.

Still, some advocates say the WPS could go a lot further.

An earlier version mandated easily accessible, centralized posting of information about where pesticides have been applied. The EPA has since scrapped that part of the proposed standard.

“We are outraged at the removal of the central posting location,” said Andrea Delgado, legislative representative for Earthjustice, an environmental group that uses legal means to affect policy changes. “Right now, the burden is going to fall on the workers to ask the employer for that information.” Yet many undocumented workers may fear legal retribution from their employers if they speak up, she said.

More puzzling is that the EPA’s proposed standard will not require any pesticide safety information to be printed in Spanish. More than half of the agricultural workers in the U.S. are undocumented immigrants, and an estimated 88 percent of them are Hispanic (the term is a census designation), many with significant language barriers.

Although children younger than 16 will no longer be allowed to spray and handle pesticides, children of any age will be permitted to work alongside adults after pesticides have been applied. (Federal labor standards set a minimum working age of 16 years for most occupations, but the Fair Labor Standards Act does not apply to minors who work in agriculture.)

Neither does the new standard offer protections for the farm owners’ children, who are exempt from most requirements of the current Worker Protection Standard.

Delgado urged the public to submit comments to the EPA before the Aug. 18 deadline, to add to the growing number of concerned citizens who see revisions to the standard not only as a question of justice for farmworkers and their families but also as a pressing environmental issue.

“If we used safe chemicals, in a perfect world we wouldn’t have the need for the Worker Protection Standard,” she said. “This is a very fundamental protection that we are calling for, and there’s an urgency because these toxic chemicals are not only poisoning people but poisoning our land and water.”