The agriculture industry relies heavily on the use of pesticides, which are highly toxic chemicals that farmworkers and surrounding communities are frequently exposed to through simply doing their jobs or living near agricultural sites. Pesticides enter the body through inhalation and penetration of the skin. The latest statistics indicate that in 2007, 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides were used in the United States, and 80 percent were destined for agriculture. Among these, 33 million pounds were organophosphates, a particularly pernicious class of pesticides that are the most frequent culprits of acute poisonings of farmworkers.
Our nation’s farmworkers live and work at ground zero for pesticide exposure. In a 1989 speech before Pacific Lutheran University, Cesar E. Chavez, a beloved labor and civil rights leader and an indefatigable voice for farmworkers, warned about the perils of pesticides and called on the nation to recognize the challenges that plague farmworkers, such as fighting for higher wages and improved working conditions. We’d be ignoring a greater evil if we failed to protect them from “systematic poisoning through the reckless use of agricultural toxics.” In raising the urgency to protect farmworkers, their families and surrounding rural communities from pesticides, he shared stories of workers collapsing and dying after entering recently sprayed fields, children with birth defects and neurological problems and cancer. Meanwhile, workers were repeatedly told that the pesticides they were frequently exposed to were merely plant “medicine” they need not fear.
Cesar knew better then and we certainly know better now. From farm fields to school playgrounds, workers and children are being engulfed by life- and health-threatening toxic chemicals. But standing between farmworkers and the fundamental protections that they deserve are entrenched interests coupled with government inaction.
Cesar highlighted that the poverty, race, ethnicity, language barriers and discrimination compounded the dilemmas faced by farmworkers, and these challenges persist today. The majority of farmworkers are Latino, immigrant and poor. When it comes to protections from hazardous chemicals, workers in non-agricultural sectors enjoy more stringent safeguards established by the Department of Labor, while farmworkers must look to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Worker Protection Standard; an anemic and antiquated standard that has not been updated in more than 20 years. To fight this inequality, Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice filed a petition calling on the EPA to propose, issue and implement revisions to the Worker Protection Standard. The 2011 petition has been met with unfulfilled promises for action and further delay.
The EPA has an obligation to update the Worker Protection Standard under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, and also to comply with Executive Order 12898, which instructs the agency to ensure that it is addressing environmental justice and disproportionate and adverse health and environmental impacts on people of color and low-income populations.
This past October, the administration immortalized Cesar E. Chavez with a national monument to honor his life’s work. But what will be done to ensure farmworkers and their families don’t continue to be collateral damage in the agricultural supply chain? Underscoring the moral imperative, Cesar said:
If we ignored pesticide poisoning, if we looked on as farm workers and their children are stricken, then all the other injustices our people face would be compounded by an even more deadly tyranny.
The ball is in the administration’s court.