In North Carolina and Florida, three babies born in 2005 brought to light in the most painful way what pesticide exposure does to farmworkers and their children. All three babies were born with severe birth defects after their mothers had worked together on tomato farms for the produce company Ag-Mart in both states. State investigators found hundreds of instances of pesticide safety problems, but were unable to prove pesticide violations in the case, because of loopholes in the Worker Protection Standard—the very pesticide rules they were trying to enforce.
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed strengthening the WPS to address many pesticide safety concerns—including those raised in the high-profile birth defects case.
“It is long past time for farmworkers to get the same workplace protections that most other Americans in the workplace do,” said Eve Gartner, attorney for Earthjustice. “We encourage the EPA to strengthen and bolster a safeguard that will help protect those who are on the frontlines of our food system.”
“We are raising the voices of the farmworkers,” said Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida. “We hear them every day in our offices as they talk about the working conditions they are subjected to, and about their symptoms from pesticide exposure. People should not have to risk their health so that the rest of us can have fresh fruits and vegetables.”
The federal standard, first adopted by the EPA in 1992, is notoriously difficult to enforce. The standard does not require record-keeping to document whether pesticide rules have actually been followed and requires only minimal training on the risks that pesticide exposure can pose to workers’ children and families, so many workers don’t find out about those hazards until after the worst has happened.
While the WPS was designed only with adult workers in mind, agriculture is different from most other industries in that it allows children to join labor crews at 12 years old—even at 10 in some crops—and these children are exposed to pesticides on the job.
Yesenia Cuello and her sister Neftali began working on tobacco and sweet potato farms in North Carolina when Yesenia was 14 and Neftali was 12. Both girls report that they saw pesticides used nearby and were even exposed to the drift, but never knew what pesticides were.
“We never heard the word ‘pesticide’ or had a safety training until 4 years later,” says Yesenia, now 18. “I assumed it was some kind of fertilizer.”
An estimated 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States. The nation’s 1–2.4 million farmworkers face the greatest threat from the health impacts of these chemicals. Ten to twenty thousand farmworkers are injured by pesticides on the job every year in the US. Short-term effects of pesticide exposures can include skin and eye injuries, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems, and even death. Long-term exposure on the job can increase the risk of serious chronic health problems such as cancer, birth defects, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease for farmworkers, their families, and their children.
Last week, 52 members of Congress, led by Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Linda Sanchez of California, urged EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a letter to release the proposed rule, stating that the current agricultural worker protection standard is "limited" and "insufficient" to protect workers from the hazards of handling pesticides. The same week, California-based Pesticide Action Network submitted a petition to McCarthy to strengthen the Worker Protection Standard, signed by more than 18,000 citizens.