Today and tomorrow on Capitol Hill, a dozen farmworkers from across the nation are meeting 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 than any other sector of society, with thousands of farmworkers each year experiencing pesticide poisoning.
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 10,000–20,000 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.
Also, farmworker families are 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 following changes to the Worker Protection Standard:
Statement by Virginia Ruiz, Director of Occupational and Environmental Health for Farmworker Justice:
"Farmworkers are routinely exposed to pesticides yet the safety training and information they receive is wholly inadequate. The EPA needs to revise current regulations without further delay to increase safeguards and to prevent undue harm to workers and their families from pesticide exposure."
Statement by Trip Van Noppen, President of Earthjustice:
"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."
Statement by Jeannie Economos, Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project Coordinator for Farmworker Association of Florida:
"I have sat across the table and looked into the eyes of farmworkers who show me rashes on their arms and legs and those who tell me about their debilitating chronic health problems. Then they tell me stories about being regularly exposed to pesticides at work, sometimes for years at a time. It is heartbreaking. These are hardworking people with families and vibrant lives. Our regulations must do much more to protect the very people who feed all of us in this country."
Statement by Margaret Reeves, Senior Scientist and Program Coordinator for Environmental Health and Workers' Rights at Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA):
"Current rules simply don't do enough to protect farmworkers from pesticides. As long as these hazardous chemicals are used in agriculture, farmworkers need much stronger protections in the field. After more than a decade of promises and delay, EPA is now poised to strengthen the rules protecting farmworkers—and they need to get it right."
Statement by Anne Katten, Project Director for Pesticide and Work Safety for California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLAF):
"Updating of the WPS to provide basic protections for agricultural workers such as annual substantive training about pesticides and fit-testing of respirators is long overdue."
Statement by Ed Zuroweste, MD, Migrant Clinician Network's Chief Medical Officer:
"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. It is the responsibility of our protective agencies to safeguard our workers. The proposed changes to the Worker Protection Standards are a step in the right direction to keep the people who work tirelessly to put food on our tables, safer on the job."
Statement by Héctor Sánchez, Executive Director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) and head of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA):
"The continued neglect of farmworker protections by our regulatory bodies is unacceptable. After a significant number of cases and evidence of the serious health impacts farmworkers face by pesticide poisoning, it's time for the Environmental Protection Agency to fully enforce established regulations and farmworker protections."
Statement by Alina Diaz, vice president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas:
"How can people eat knowing that so much pain and suffering went into this fruit or this bottle of wine? That is not fair. Lawmakers need to really make a strong effort to make better legislation so these workers are protected."