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The Federal Safety Standards That Protect Farmworkers and Their Families From The Dangers Of Pesticides

And how each of us could be affected if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guts these safeguards.


Every day starting at dawn, teenage and adult farmworkers labor by hand in fields sopping with toxic pesticides. We can see them all over the country. They cut ferns in Florida, pull weeds in Ohio, pick strawberries in California, or harvest squash in Michigan, while others mix and spray pesticides that are intended to harm pests but also put workers in harm’s way.

Stories of workers suffering from vomiting, headaches, itches and other symptoms of acute pesticide exposure are all too common, as doctors diagnose up to 20,000 poisonings a year among agricultural workers. This is like saying that every year, each child and adult in the town of Shelbyville, Indiana, ends up in the hospital for a pesticide-related injury. And that’s only what’s reported.

To address ongoing poisonings, critical improvements were made in the past several years to two federal safeguards—known as the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard and its sister set of safety standards, the Certification of Pesticide Applicators Rule. But on Dec. 14, 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its intent to gut these two poisoning-prevention measures, despite the lives at stake.

Update, Mar. 11: The Pesticide Registration Improvement Extension Act of 2018, S.483, has been signed into law. The legislation passed unanimously in the House and the Senate — and ensures the preservation of the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS) and the Certification of Pesticide Applicators (CPA) rule.

Now, by law — and consistent with the commitment of EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to the Senate — the U.S. EPA will not revise the WPS and CPA rules before Oct. 1, 2021. Read more.

Earthjustice is proud to have worked alongside worker advocate and justice organizations for years to strengthen both of these critical protections. And we will defend these vital safeguards in court if the Trump administration continues its attack on our communities and the millions of people who grow our food.

Here’s how you could be affected, and how you can defend these protections.

Who do these safeguards protect?

The Agricultural Worker Protection Standard and Certification of Pesticide Applicators Rule protect everyone, including farmworkers.

When pesticides are used to maintain home lawns or the community greenspace, or to manage an insect infestation in or around your home or office, the Certification of Pesticide Applicators Rule prevents tragedies by ensuring that the certified pesticide applicator hired—and the people who they employ—are adequately trained to use these hazardous chemicals.

These protections make sure that basic, life-saving questions are answered: Is the pesticide applicator trained to protect themselves and others during and after applying the most toxic chemicals available on the market (formally known as “restricted use pesticides”)? Are pesticide applicators aware of which chemicals they are handling could severely injure or kill people and pets if misused?

When the EPA adopted these standards, it pointed to multiple tragic incidents where children died, or were seriously and permanently injured with nerve damage, when pesticides applicators misused highly toxic pesticides that had been banned for residential use.

Why are these two standards needed?

The Agricultural Worker Protection Standard and Certification of Pesticide Applicators Rule save lives by preventing illness, injury and death from pesticide exposure or misuse.

Every year, approximately 20,000 agricultural workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—as many as 300,000, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office—suffer pesticide poisoning. The enormity of these health harms and farmworkers from across the country compelled the federal government to protect the farm-working labor who feeds the country.

Pesticide exposure can pose serious short- and long-term health risks to children and adults. Children are particularly vulnerable to the dangerous effects of pesticide exposure—children’s bodies are still developing; they consume more water and food; and they breathe more air, pound for pound, than adults.

The immediate aftermath of acute pesticide poisoning can result in rashes, vomiting, and even death. In the long-term, pesticide exposure has been associated with increased risk of cancers, infertility, neurological disorders, and respiratory conditions. These chemicals also contaminate the air and water, a burden disproportionately borne by rural communities.

Pesticide Poisoning in the United States

At a glance:

  • In California, mortality from Parkinson’s disease as the underlying cause of death was higher in agricultural pesticide-use counties than in non-use counties. (NIH)
  • On KauaĘ»i, “restricted use pesticides” are used on cornfields 17 times more per acre than in the U.S. mainland. (Center for Food Safety)
  • In Minnesota, six of the top eight agricultural pesticides sold by volume in 2011 have been linked to cancer. (MN Dept. of Agriculture)
  • Between 2000–2010, Oklahoma experienced more pesticide-related illnesses and deaths than any other state. (CDC)
  • Among non-occupational pesticide-related illness and injury between 2007–2011, the state of Florida experienced the highest number, with 1,759 cases. (CDC)
  • In Michigan, data collected in 1993 showed a total of 82 different active ingredients were applied as agricultural chemicals to the state’s apples, blueberries, grapes, peaches, sweet cherries and tart cherries. (CDC)
  • Children in farmworker families in Washington’s Yakima Valley are exposed to higher amounts of harmful pesticides from dust in the home than other children. (CDC)

What is the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard, and how is it at risk?

The Agricultural Worker Protection Standard is the only federal rule protecting people from occupational pesticide exposure and poisonings. It protects approximately 2.5 million farmworkers across the 50 states, the District of Columbia and all U.S. territories.

This set of safeguards was strengthened in 2015—the result of more than 15 years of advocacy and stakeholder meetings—to give farmworkers health protections that employees in other industries have enjoyed for decades. The updated standards balance the needs of growers, while taking into account the unique working environment of agricultural labor.

The updated standard serves critical purposes:

  • Protect the approximately half-a-million child farmworkers throughout the country. Teens under the age of 18 are not permitted to mix, load or apply pesticides, unless they are working on an establishment that is owned or operated by their family members.
  • Improve the quality of pesticide safety training, so workers can protect themselves on the job, and shield their families from take-home pesticide residue that can latch onto bodies or clothes.
  • Give farmworkers the right to request pesticide-application information through a designated representative.

The Trump administration has now signaled it may eliminate all of these provisions—meaning, it would once again be lawful to let all teenage farmworkers handle dangerous pesticides while on the job.

Furthermore, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is withholding the new pesticide safety materials that employers need to educate their workforce. This comes even as farmworkers and doctors have called for these protections, because pesticide exposure increases the risk of cancer and may impact child development.

What is the Certification for Pesticide Applicators Rule, and how is it at risk?

The Certification for Pesticide Applicators Rule sets training and certification requirements for commercial and private pesticide applicators who handle chemicals classified as the most toxic in the market. These so-called “restricted use pesticides” cannot be sold to the general public because of how dangerous they can be to people and the environment. Only certified applicators can handle these life-threatening chemicals and apply them in our homes, our businesses and our farms.

To protect children’s brains and their developing bodies, in 2017, an important improvement to the Certification for Pesticide Applicators Rule prohibited youth under the age of 18 from applying “restricted use pesticides.”

This standard provides many critical protections, in addition to protecting children from applying the most toxic pesticides:

  • Requires that certified applicators be able to read and write, and increases the frequency of applicator safety training to every year.
  • Mandates that pesticide information is provided in different languages, since pesticide workers are often migrants who may speak limited English.
  • Immediate Family Exemption: To accommodate family-owned pesticides applicator businesses, the standard allows 16-year-olds to handle “restricted use pesticides” if they are supervised by a certified applicator who is a member of their immediate family. Critics of the standard have claimed immediate family has been too narrowly defined, but in fact, the term includes: spouse, parents, stepparents, foster parents, children, stepchildren, foster children, father-in-law, mother-in-law, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, grandparents, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and first cousins.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now wants to eliminate the Certification for Pesticide Applicators Rule’s minimum age restriction—a safeguard that protects not just the lives of minors working as for-hire laborers, but also the public who may be exposed to injury or even death, when pesticides are mishandled.

What occupations are covered by these two standards?

The Agricultural Worker Protection Standard covers:

  • Pesticide handlers, who mix, load, or apply agricultural pesticides; clean or repair pesticide application equipment; or assist with pesticide application.
  • Agricultural workers, who perform tasks related to growing and harvesting plants on farms, greenhouses, nurseries, and forests.

The Certification of Pesticide Applicators Rule covers:

  • Workers who apply “restricted use pesticides”—the most toxic chemicals available on the market—in businesses, homes, schools, farms and ranches. That includes approximately one million certified pesticide applicators and the non-certified pesticide applicators they supervise.

While the Certification of Pesticide Applicators Rule protects the lives of pest control workers, those protections extend to all of us who are exposed to hazardous pesticides in our place of business, in schools, and in our homes—even our pets are protected under this standard.

What has the federal government said about how these safeguards can improve our lives?

According to the government’s own findings, the monetized health benefits of both standards will offset or outweigh costs, with the benefits of the improved Agricultural Worker Protection Standard itself likely to exceed $64 million each year in avoided health costs.

These life-saving protections are sensible. Still, the EPA was eager to discount these benefits in order to cater to petrochemical companies’ bottom line.

In fact, by delaying and re-working standards that have taken decades of expert work to develop and finalize, the EPA has been wasting taxpayer money.

Earthjustice fights for a healthy, safe, and fair food system that safeguards the health and economic needs of farmworkers, farmers, rural communities and consumers. Shifting away from reliance on hazardous pesticides is a key step toward this goal. For as long as harmful pesticides are in use, we will work for stronger environmental health regulations for all people.