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Daily News Blog

19
Dec

EPA Beginning to Backtrack on Farmworker Health Protections from Toxic Pesticides

(Beyond Pesticides, December 19, 2017) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to revisit, and potentially weaken, rules passed in 2015 to  update farmworker protections from hazardous pesticides. Improvements to Agricultural Worker Protection Standards (AWPS) were proposed under the Obama Administration after over a 20-year delay. While certain provisions will go into effect next year, the Trump Administration and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will nonetheless propose new changes that are likely to significantly weaken safeguards for farmworker health. Health and farmworker groups are deriding the move as another signal that the current Administration is carrying out the orders of the pesticide industry.

Most workers in the U.S. look to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for  standards  to  protect  them from exposure to hazardous chemicals. However, farmworkers are not eligible for protection under these rules. Protection for farmworkers from pesticides is left to EPA’s authority under AWPS, a standard that is far less protective than OSHA.

EPA announced in a press release that three aspects of the Obama-era AWPS would be revisited: i) a requirement that the farmworker be a minimum age of 18 to apply toxic pesticides; ii) a provision that establishes 25 to 100 ft ‘exclusion zones’ after toxic pesticide applications; and iii) a clause which allows farmworkers to have a ‘designated representative’ obtain information about where and when pesticides were applied.

Changes to these aspects of AWPS are viewed as a benefit to the pesticide industry, which says the rules will be too expensive to implement, and weaken health protections for farmworkers. What parent would want their child to apply restricted use pesticides, the most toxic chemicals on the market? How is it acceptable to expose any human to known carcinogens or neurotoxicants without reasonable buffer zones or areas to take shelter? Why should individuals, their doctors, or their attorneys be denied information about chemical exposure that could help address health problems or bring accountability to dangerous business practices?

Despite the plan to propose new rulemaking, EPA does plan to allow the Certification of Pesticide Applicators Rule within the AWPS to go into effect on May 22, 2018, nearly a year after originally intended. These rules provide new training and compliance requirements for pesticide applicators. In June 2017, farmworker and health organizations, including Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice, sued EPA for delaying the rule, which the agency provided the public only four days to comment on before making the move.

Farmworkers encounter both acute and chronic risks from pesticide exposure. A report published in late 2016 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that between 2007 and 2011, over 2,600 cases of acute pesticide poisoning occurred among pesticide workers in 12 states. Poisoning incidents of agricultural pesticide applicators was over 37 times those of nonagricultural workers. A separate report from the state of California in 2016 found substantial increases in pesticide poisoning incidents.

Farmworkers and pesticide applicators are at increased risk for a range of diseases as a result of their frequent exposure to toxic pesticides. Research from the United States’ long-running Agricultural Health Study found earlier this year that male pesticide applicators who were part of a pesticide spill or related accident were more likely to experience DNA changes that make them more susceptible to prostate cancer.

While the Obama-era update to AWPS was not ideal, and could have been further strengthened, the process considered a wide range of stakeholder input, including both industry and farmworker advocates. Opening back up the rules will benefit only one group of stakeholders, the pesticide industry. To protect farmworkers in the face of government inaction and backsliding, help effect a shift in consumer preference away from foods laced with toxic pesticides. Vote with your food dollars by purchasing organic whenever possible. By choosing organic, consumers help grow a system that eschews the use of toxic pesticides, protecting the health of farmworkers and their families. To learn more about how buying organic food can help safeguard farmworkers from toxic pesticides, see Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience guide. And for more information on how you can get educated and active in protecting farmworkers and changing our agricultural system towards safer practices, see Beyond Pesticides Agricultural Justice webpage.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: EPA Press Release, Bloomberg BNA

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