EPA Moves To Protect Farmworkers From Pesticides

New policy aims to correct decades of wrongdoings

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Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency put itself on a path to right several wrongs of the past decades done to this nation’s farmworkers and their families.

EPA announced a new policy that will apply the same science in assessing risks to workers and their families as it uses to protect children generally from pesticides in our food. In 1996, Congress mandated that EPA protect children from the risks posed by the combined exposure to pesticides in our foods, drinking water and environment. Congress also directed EPA to account for children’s special vulnerabilities to toxic pesticides and gaps in our knowledge about their full risks.

EPA reviewed thousands of pesticides under these standards, but it carved out exceptions for some of the most vulnerable children—children who go with their parents in the fields and children who are exposed to pesticides that drift into their homes, schools, day care centers, and playfields.

Applying a callous double standard, EPA ignored these children. EPA even ignored risks to fetuses of pregnant workers who are exposed to pesticides in utero on the theory that the risks were to the workers, not the fetuses. EPA now plans to apply the same science and the same standards to these children.

EPA’s announcement also commits to apply the same science in assessing risks to workers as it uses to assess the risks posed by pesticides in our food supply. Our laws afford workers less protection to the workers in the field than to the general public exposed to pesticides in food. However, as EPA’s policy concludes, science is science. There is no justification for using weaker science when it comes to identifying the risks to workers. EPA is appropriately now poised to put an end to this practice.

EPA is also responding to a petition filed by Earthjustice in October on behalf of farmworkers and health advocates. Our petition focused on EPA’s utter failure to protect children from pesticide drift. The new policy indicates that EPA intends to fill this void and address the risks posed by drift to children and bystanders. However, EPA plans to develop methods for doing so over the next 6-18 months and then to apply these new methods to the thousands of pesticides on the market.

In the meantime, children are regularly being poisoned and exposed to pesticides that impair their brain development or cause cancer just by playing outside or going to school. Congress gave EPA a 1996 deadline to protect kids from pesticides, including from pesticide drift. The Bush EPA failed to do so. These children should not have to breathe in poisonous pesticide dust for several more years, while EPA studies the problem. EPA should take bold steps now to protect these children by creating buffers around schools, homes, playfields, and day care centers where toxic pesticides cannot be sprayed.

Patti is a senior attorney of the Northwest regional office in Seattle, where she works to fight efforts to turn the Pacific Northwest into a fossil fuel export hub. She also leads Earthjustice's pesticide work and efforts to preserve access to the courts and legal remedies. Her litigation experience includes notable successes in safeguarding the region’s old-growth forests, restoring Pacific salmon, and more.