Several groups that work to protect farmworkers from exposures to toxic pesticides filed a petition today with the Environmental Protection Agency to implement stronger protections for farmworkers against the hazardous health impacts of pesticides. The petition seeks to eliminate the existing dual standard providing fewer workplace protections against pesticide exposures for farmworkers than for workers using hazardous chemicals in non-agricultural sectors.
“Most American workers enjoy workplace protections created by the federal Office of Safety and Health Administration, but not farmworkers,” said Eve Gartner, lead attorney for Earthjustice, the public interest law firm representing the groups. “They get second class treatment which exposes them to high levels of very dangerous pesticides which is not only unhealthy but also fundamentally unfair.”
The health and safety of industrial workers falls under the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Farmworkers must rely on EPA’s Worker Protection Standard of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (“FIFRA”) which is far more lenient than the OSHA rules that protect industrial workers encountering potentially dangerous chemicals.
“All we are asking is that the EPA protect farmworkers with standards that are as protective as industrial workers enjoy under OSHA,” said Virginia Ruiz, attorney for co-counsel Farmworker Justice. “Revisions to WPS are long overdue. EPA has not substantively updated it since 1992.”
It is well-documented that a significant number of farmworkers are sickened from pesticides. An average of 57.6 out of every 100,000 agricultural workers experience acute pesticide poisoning, illness or injury each year, the same order of magnitude as the annual incidence rate of breast cancer in the United States. As a result of cumulative long-term exposures, they and their children are at risk of developing serious chronic health problems such as cancer, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease. Despite the overwhelming evidence, EPA has not effectively updated worker protections for almost 20 years.
“The agency’s prolonged failure to make revisions is particularly glaring,” said Margaret Reeves, Senior Scientist and Program Coordinator for Environmental Health and Workers' Rights at PANNA, “since EPA itself has admitted for over a decade that even with full compliance of its regulations, ‘risks to workers still exceed the Agency’s levels of concern.’”
EPA has said that it expects to publish proposed revisions to the WPS early next year. The groups’ recommendations for those revisions focus on three key protections for the workers who handle and apply pesticides:
- Medical monitoring of workers using pesticides that inhibit enzymes necessary to the functioning of the nervous system;
- Use of "closed systems" for mixing and loading pesticides, which prevent splashing and blowing of pesticides onto workers;
- Use of enclosed cabs in tractors from which pesticides are being sprayed using an airblaster.
In addition, the petition requests a range of basic measures that would afford stronger protections for agricultural fieldworkers.
While worker monitoring and closed system mixing of chemicals is already required in California and Washington, the groups believe that EPA may not be planning to include these and other vital protections.
“The fact that these protections are already in place in some states and/or for some chemicals proves that there is no significant obstacle to mandating them on a national basis,” said Anne Katten, Project Director for Pesticide and Work Safety at CRLAF. “With this petition we want to make that absolutely clear to EPA.”
The groups argue that EPA is required to incorporate these protections into its revisions both under FIFRA, the federal statute regulating pesticides, and under the agency’s stated obligation to achieve environmental justice by addressing the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs and policies on low-income and populations of color.
The petition, which was prepared by Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice, is submitted on behalf of United Farm Workers, Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), Farm Worker Pesticide Project (FWPP), California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLAF), Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and The Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc.
“We must speak up for the very people who help to put food on our tables,” said Ms. Gartner. “Their work is integral to our daily lives and further delay in providing these basic protections is just unacceptable.”