“For us it’s personal,” said Jeannie Economos, Farmworker Association of Florida Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project Coordinator. “It’s a daily issue for us. Every day with a weaker protection standard is another day a worker is exposed to pesticides,” she said.

On February 20th , the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced proposed revisions to its Worker Protection Standard for agricultural pesticides, the first since the existing standard was established in 1992 – and the second proposed update to the standard since its introduction in 1974. EPA has called the proposal “long overdue” and  “a milestone” that will “protect the people who put food on our tables every day.” Farm worker and environmental advocates have welcomed the proposal that was a decade in the making, yet see both improvements and what some are calling “steps backward” in the proposed changes.

About 900 million pounds of pesticides are used annually in the US, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that each year, approximately 10,000 to 20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide poisonings occur among the country’s two million farm workers. This estimate of harmful exposures, however, is considered low, given that many farm workers don’t report such illnesses and may not connect non-acute, chronic diseases or slow-to-manifest health problems with pesticide exposure. This number also does not account for children and other family or household members who have their health affected by pesticides, either directly – by living near where they’re applied – or indirectly, either prenatally or through exposure to workers’ contaminated work clothing and equipment.

Pesticides currently in use are known to cause a range of short- and long-term adverse health effects. Short-term effects include respiratory, skin and eye problems, nausea and headaches. Cumulative exposures can increase the risk for certain cancers and birth defects and result in reproductive and neurological problems, both for workers exposed directly and for children exposed incidentally or prenatally. There is now compelling evidence that prenatal pesticide exposure can lead to learning, behavioral and reproductive problems that affect not only the children but also the grandchildren of workers exposed.

The EPA proposal would increase pesticide-use and safety training requirements, introduce some pesticide-use training recordkeeping requirements that will help track where specific pesticides are used, add new buffer zones requirements, and require signage for re-entry into areas where pesticides have just been applied.  There is currently no age limit for employees handling pesticides and the proposed standard would – with some significant exemptions – bar children under 16 from handling pesticides.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Amy Liebman, Migrant Clinicians Network Director of Environmental and Occupational Health. But, she said, “there is much work to be done” to strengthen the EPA’s proposal.

The proposed revised standard would increase the frequency of required pesticide use training from once every five years to once yearly. Pesticide use and safety training would also have to include information on how to reduce take-home exposures (on clothing and equipment, including produce containers), something currently not required.

It would reduce the “grace” period during which a newly hired worker could work without such training from five to two days and require that employers keep records of pesticide training for two years. No such recordkeeping is currently required, so this would help document where specific pesticides are used. In fact, apart from in California and to some extent Washington and Oregon, pesticide applications are not officially recorded. A number of states have programs to record pesticide poisonings but only California and Washington have any requirements for medical monitoring related to occupational pesticide use.

The proposed new standard would require that signs be posted to show where applications have occurred for pesticides for which the “restricted no-entry interval” is more than 48 hours. In addition it would create 25- to 100-foot buffer zones around areas where pesticides have been applied, something that only applied previously to nurseries and greenhouses. It would adopt Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards for respirators – an important improvement, say worker advocates who note agricultural workers lack many of the health and safety protection afforded other US workers.  It would also prohibit anyone under age 16 from handling pesticides or being allowed early re-entry into treated fields and other areas. The current standard has no minimum age.

Concerns about communication and age limits

What EPA’s proposed standard does not do is require that pesticide information – labels, safety data sheets and signage – be available in any language other than English, even though Spanish is the primary language for the vast majority of US farm workers. Recent National Agricultural Worker Survey data show that only about 30% of US farm workers say they speak English well, while 35% said they did not speak any English. The proposal also does not detail how training is to be conducted, which concerns United Farm Workers National Vice President Erik Nicholson. “Too often,” he said, “training consists of tired workers sitting in front of a video.”

A proposed change prompting particular concern among farm worker advocates is one that would remove required central posting of information about where pesticides have just been applied. “This is the biggest, glaring problem,” said Economos of the proposed revisions. Instead of information being posted in a place visible to anyone walking by, this and other pesticide safety information would be available to workers upon request. “Knowing the farm worker population, having it accessible under an employer’s control is not really making it accessible,” said Virginia Ruiz, Farmworker Justice Director of Occupational and Environmental Health. “Farm workers would be reluctant to ask a supervisor or employer,” she said. “Workers often won’t even complain about an illness, so it’s really unlikely they’ll ask for information on pesticides,” said Economos.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Nicholson, “for things to take so long and produce so little, including some steps backward.” Among his concerns are those for children working on farms. “Young workers continue to be an issue” in terms of farm worker health and safety, said Nicholson.

What he’s referring to is the fact that the standard does not apply to family farms, those that do not employ non-family-member workers. On family farms that do not exceed the Department of Labor’s (DOL) hiring limits for exemption from the Fair Labor Standards Act, children 12 and under are allowed to work in non-hazardous jobs. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, hired farm workers make up about a third of those working on farms, the rest being self-employed farmers and their family members. Estimates on the number of family farms – which can range from the very small to very large in size – from the EPA coincide.

Although OSHA is the agency primarily responsible for setting and enforcing workplace standards, agricultural work is excluded from several federal laws and regulations, and EPA, rather than OSHA, is responsible for protecting agricultural workers from harms related to pesticide exposure. The DOL’s Fair Labor Standards Act, however, has child labor rules that restrict hazardous work on farms that apply to all agricultural workers under 16. These specify that workers handling or applying chemicals classified as Toxicity Category I or II by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) must be at least 16 years old. They do not, however, restrict children from working in proximity to pesticide application or from entering places where pesticides have just been applied.

The proposed new standard requires that all pesticide handlers and workers who enter recently treated areas be at least 16 years old. Yet by exempting members of farm owners’ immediate families from this requirement, it still leaves children at risk of harmful pesticide exposures. And farm worker advocates are concerned about the adequacy of the proposed age limit for pesticide handling. “The difference between 16 and 18 is important, both in terms of adverse developmental effects of pesticides and maturity,” said Ruiz.

“We have no quarrel with protecting people where there are risks but this is an issue related to family farms,” said American Farm Bureau Federation’s Energy and Environment Team director Paul Schlegel, who said his organization would be “looking closely at the 16 year old threshold” to determine if that is “appropriate or overly restrictive.” He also said the Farm Bureau doesn’t “want to see buffer zones that are too large” or “a lot of paper work with no purpose.”

An issue not yet discussed in the roll-out of the revised WPS is enforcement. Snapshots of WPS violations listed in oversight programs in Florida and Oregon suggest that violations are frequent and occur across the range of the standard’s requirements.

The proposed new standard is open for a 90-day comment period. Meanwhile the 2014 growing season – and another round of pesticide application – is getting underway.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific AmericanYale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation. 

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