On July 15 and 16, about two dozen farmworkers paid an unprecedented visit to Capitol Hill to ask Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House to support increased protection from exposure to pesticides. Farmworkers have lobbied Congress before, but this is the first time such a visit focused entirely on pesticide exposure issues, explained Farmworker Justice director of occupational and environmental health, Virginia Ruiz. Farmworkers are asking Congress to support strengthening the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard for pesticides, a regulation that has not been updated or revised in 20 years. The Washington, DC visit was timed to coincide with release of Farmworker Justice’s report, Exposed and Ignored:  How Pesticides are Endangering Our Nation’s Farmworkers.

“This can’t wait another day or another season,” said Ruiz. “Government and employers have to make chemical safety in agriculture a priority. In no other industry is there such a  lack of attention to these dangers,” she said.

A Widespread Hazard

Potential adverse health effects of some of the most widely used pesticides are well documented.  Short-term effects can include respiratory problems, neurological effects that include headaches, muscle and vision problems, nausea and other gastrointestinal problems, eye irritation, and skin problems, including rashes and blisters. Acute short-term responses can include chemical burns, paralysis, blindness and death. Dehydration and heat can exacerbate the toxicity of some exposures. Some short-term effects can become chronic, among them ongoing neurological problems, dermatitis, enhanced sun sensitivity, and adverse immune and reproductive system effects. A significant number of pesticides have also been linked to cancer or increased risk for cancer.

Children are particularly vulnerable to pesticides’ health effects, which can occur at very low levels of exposure. The effects of pesticides on children exposed prenatally are also now well documented. Among such evidence is research by scientists at Columbia University that has found a strong association between prenatal exposure to an organophosphate pesticide and adverse impacts on children’s behavior, physical brain structure, cognitive ability and neurodevelopment. This research also suggests that brain abnormalities prompted by this pesticide exposure can occur at levels below the EPA’s current threshold for toxicity. Ongoing research by University of California scientists has found that children in California’s Salinas Valley – a prime agricultural region – exposed to pesticides prenatally had notably lower IQ scores. Both the University of California and Columbia University researchers found there was no level of such pesticide exposure that did not produce some adverse effect on IQ.

According to the EPA, approximately 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year in the United States. The EPA also estimates that at least 10,000 to 20,000 of the nation’s 1 to 2 million farmworkers suffer acute pesticide poisoning each year, a figure that likely underestimates by at least half the number of such exposures as many affected farmworkers may not seek medical attention.

This number does not include effects of low level or chronic pesticide exposure – or the effects of pesticide exposure on farmworkers’ children, other family members or others in agricultural communities. When looking at direct injuries and illnesses related to farmworkers’ pesticide exposure in 1992, the General Accounting Office estimated some 300,000 to be affected annually – again a number that would not have included effects on children or other community members. Those not directly exposed in agricultural work can be exposed to pesticides through residues transported on clothes and shoes, tools and other equipment, as well as skin. Pesticides sprayed onto fields and crops can also drift into neighboring fields, residential communities and schools. Children and other community members can also be exposed to pesticides applied via sprinklers or irrigation water (a practice known as “chemigation). “This should be of concern to employers,” said Ruiz, “not just for their workers but also for themselves and their own families.”

“Farmworker families experience greater harm from pesticide exposure than any other sector of society,” explains Pesticide Action Network North America’s organizing and media director, Paul Towers. “Health impacts are wide-ranging and can include immediate poisonings and long-term and lasting effects such as various cancers, Parkinsons’ Disease, asthma, birth defects and neurological harms including developmental delays and learning disabilities.”

“As a physician caring for farmworkers, I can only do so much to treat a farmworker over-exposed to pesticides. But the problem of farmworkers and pesticides goes much deeper than what I see and can do in the exam room. I am often frustrated that what could easily be avoided by prevention is much more difficult and unsatisfactory to diagnose and treat after a pesticide exposure,” said Migrant Clinicians Network chief medical officer Ed Zuroweste in a statement.

Improving Training and Information

Given the potential health hazards of pesticides, it may come as a surprise to those not familiar with agricultural regulations to know that training on safe pesticide use is currently only required once every five years. This training, said Ruiz, often comes only in the form of a short video offered during a workday break or at the end of the work day. It can lack specific information about pesticides being used in a particular operation and is often not provided in a format that is useful or that workers can understand. Pesticide labels are often not available in Spanish or other languages workers can read. Warnings about where pesticides have been sprayed are frequently inadequate, and workers are often not notified about the time at which it will be safe for them to re-enter treated areas, Ruiz explained. Farmworker advocates would like to see training that includes opportunities for real dialogue between workers and management, that is tailored to specific workers and farms and is provided frequently enough to ensure that all workers are properly informed.

With all of this in mind, farmworkers from Arizona, California, Florida, Minnesota, New York and Ohio spoke with representatives from their Congressional offices last week.  They asked that the Worker Protection Standard for pesticides be revised to strengthen pesticide use training and safety information requirements and to include safety precautions that will limit farmworkers’ contact with pesticides. For example, when pesticides are applied from trucks, there is no requirement that the cab be closed and a ventilation system be used while chemicals are being sprayed. And anecdotes abound of workers handling recently treated crops without any awareness that doing so would expose them to pesticides.

Farmworkers and their advocates are also asking that medical monitoring of workers who handle neurotoxic pesticides be required and that EPA develop a national pesticide use and pesticide poisoning reporting program. Such monitoring is required in California and Washington but not elsewhere in the US. Thirty states currently require health professionals to report pesticide poisonings, but Farmworker Justice notes that only 12 of those 30 currently have resources to follow up on such reports. Symptoms of pesticide poisoning can also easily be misdiagnosed simply because health professionals have not been trained to ask about such exposures. Farmworkers are also requesting buffer zones to protect schools and residential areas from exposure to pesticides through aerial drift and increased funding for research into pesticide exposure prevention and pesticide health effects, particularly through ongoing or repeated exposure. “Other industries,” explained Ruiz, “have the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hazard communication information on chemical health effects and safety data to work with. This does not exist in agriculture.” The result, she said, is what amounts to “real discrimination.”

Farmworkers and their advocates want to close a large and potentially dangerous information gap. Doing so will result in stronger pesticide-application rules, better training, and more medical monitoring so that the women and men working to produce and harvest food and other crops across the US – and their families – are adequately protected from pesticides’ health hazards.