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EPA Guts Pesticide Spraying Safeguards for Farmworkers

Two million farmworkers are now more vulnerable to pesticide poisoning


Erin Fitzgerald, Earthjustice, (415) 283-2323

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) weakened safeguards that prevent farmworkers and rural residents from being accidentally sprayed with pesticides. EPA gutted the Application Exclusion Zone Requirements, which are a key provision of the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS).

The “Application Exclusion Zone” or AEZ is the area surrounding the pesticide application that must be free of all people other than the trained pesticide applicators. The larger and better defined the AEZ, the safer the area. AEZ is critical for schools and residential areas that are right next to agricultural fields.

The rollback makes the following changes:

  • The prior rule provided protection to anyone within the AEZ, but the new rule limits protection to only those within the boundary of the agricultural establishment. Under this provision, a pesticide handler does not have to stop application if someone is within 100 feet of the application, but not on the property. But drift does not stop at the property line. Schools, bus stops, and hospitals that are located near agriculture operations can get covered in dangerous pesticide drift and people can get acute poisoning. This rollback leaves communities surrounding agriculture fields directly in harm’s way.
  • The prior rule required that no one other than trained and equipped pesticide handlers enter the AEZ boundaries during application. The new rule allows pesticide handlers to continue application if a non-employee is within the AEZ on the agricultural establishment is subject to an easement, meaning they have a right to be on the property. This change too increases the risk of pesticide exposure.
  • The new rule shrinks the AEZ from 100 feet to 25 feet for certain ground applications of pesticides sprayed from above 12 inches, including pesticide applications that drift beyond 25 feet.

“The EPA’s latest rollback is a despicable attack on farmworkers and rural communities. In yet another handout to industry, the EPA delivered a blow to the health and safety of farmworkers by weakening protections that prevent unnecessary and unsafe exposure to pesticides,” said Carrie Apfel, a staff attorney in the Sustainable Food and Farming Program. “Exposure to pesticides have a range of negative health impacts, such as respiratory distress. Amid a respiratory pandemic, it’s unconscionable that an agency tasked with protecting public health would instead choose to seriously endanger vulnerable, yet essential workers and communities.”

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 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.

During aerial applications, up to 40% of the pesticide can be lost to drift, traveling long distances from the target area. Some pesticides will persist in the environment long after the application ended, contaminating air and water. The burden of this contamination disproportionately falls on rural communities. The enormity of these health harms and advocacy by farmworkers from across the country compelled the federal government to protect farmworkers and rural communities. Now, the EPA is unraveling those protections in favor of big business. The rule is set to take effect on December 29, 2020.

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