by Anna Jensen
“The laws of our country afford far less workplace protection to farmworkers than most workers receive in other industrial sectors. Despite the clear hazards of their work, farmworkers are not even guaranteed basic on-the-job protections to reduce exposure to the highly toxic pesticides that threaten their well-being and that of their families and children. The threat facing millions of farmworkers that work in our nation’s fields, farms and nurseries is not only toxic but fundamentally unjust and the EPA has a legal duty to correct this.” –Tripp Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice
Washington, D.C. – On July 15 and July 16 on Capitol Hill, a dozen farmworkers from across the nation met with their members of Congress to call for the implementation of stronger protections for farmworkers from hazardous pesticides. An estimated 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States, and farmworkers face the greatest threat from these chemicals of any sector of society, with thousands of farmworkers each year experiencing pesticide poisoning.
“How can people eat knowing that so much pain and suffering went into this fruit or this bottle of wine?” asked Alina Diaz, vice president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. “That is not fair. Lawmakers need to really make a strong effort to make better legislation so these workers are protected.”
The farmworkers and allies visiting D.C. this week are calling on Congress to protect the health of farmworkers and their families by strengthening the Worker Protection Standard regulations. These rules were established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set agricultural worker safety standards for pesticide use, but have not been updated or revised for more than 20 years, despite overwhelming evidence of their inadequacy.
The nation’s 1-2 million farmworkers form the backbone of the U.S. agricultural economy and many are regularly exposed to pesticides. The federal government estimates that there are 10-20,000 acute pesticide poisonings among workers in the agricultural industry annually, a figure that likely understates the actual number of acute poisonings since many affected farmworkers may not seek care from a physician.
Farmworker families are also exposed to pesticides in the form of residues on workers’ tools, clothes, shoes, and skin. The close proximity of agricultural fields to residential areas also results in aerial drift of pesticides into farmworkers’ homes, schools, and playgrounds. Research shows that children are especially vulnerable to harms from these exposures, even at very low levels.
Short-term effects of pesticide exposures can include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems and even death. Cumulative long-term exposures can increase the risk for farmworkers and their children of serious chronic health problems such as cancer, birth defects, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease.
Most workers in the U.S. look to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for standards to protect them from exposure to hazardous chemicals. Protection for farmworkers from pesticides is left to the EPA’s authority under the Worker Protection Standard of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (“FIFRA”), a standard that is far more lenient than OSHA rules and is fundamentally inadequate.
The farmworkers and advocates are calling for these changes to the Worker Protection Standard:
• Provide more frequent and more comprehensible pesticide safety training for farmworkers
• Include information about farmworker families’ exposures to pesticides in the required training materials
• Ensure that workers receive information about specific pesticides used in their work
• Require safety precautions and protective equipment limiting farmworkers’ contact with pesticides
• Require medical monitoring of workers who handle neurotoxic pesticides
Want to help put pressure on the EPA to update the rules? Sign a petition urging the EPA to better protect workers.