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Daily News Blog

17
Oct

Systemic Racism Exposed that New EPA Office of Environmental Justice May Not Address

(Beyond Pesticides, October 17, 2022)  A recent report, Exposed and At Risk: Opportunities to Strengthen Enforcement of Pesticide Regulations for Farmworker Safety, by the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law and Graduate School, in partnership with the nonprofit advocacy group, Farmworker Justice, again highlights the systemic racism of our country’s pesticide policies. Our nation depends on farmworkers, declared “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure sustenance for the nation and world. Yet the occupational exposure to toxic pesticides by farmworkers is discounted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while study after study documents the disproportionate level of illness among farmworkers.

While we are encouraged to see the formation of EPA’s new Office of Environmental Justice and Civil Rights, the agency has a historical bias against preventive action to ensure the protection of those disproportionately poisoned by toxic chemicals. While critically important to clean up contaminated communities, EPA must stop the flow of toxic pesticides at the front end because of the disproportionate poisoning effects of use, handling, transportation, and disposal. We live in an age of practices and products that make toxic pesticides unnecessary and their use unconscionable. Yet, EPA insists on the acceptability of harm (which it calls risk), despite its failure to (i) recognize comorbidities and preexisting health conditions, (ii) consider a combination of multiple chemical exposure interactions, and (iii) cite extensive missing health outcomes information (e.g., on endocrine disruption) and a resulting high level of uncertainty.

Tell EPA, Congress, and your Governor (Mayor in DC) to protect farmworkers from pesticides. Choose organic. 

The acceptance of harm to farmworkers is embodied in national and state policies under the purview of EPA, Congress, and state agencies. Correcting the injustice requires a concerted effort at all levels.

EPA’s Worker Protection Standards Are Inadequate to Protect Farmworkers. Worker protection standards are set by EPA under the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The original standard was developed after field hearings in the 1970s in which EPA heard from growers, but not farmworkers. After several tries, the WPS still do not adequately protect farmworkers. These standards have been notoriously difficult to enforce and require no record keeping documenting whether the rules have been implemented and only minimal training—all of which can threaten farmworkers and their families.

Systemic Racism is Embodied in EPA’s Risk Assessments. Exposure assessments inevitably discount the impact workers, people of color, and those with preexisting health conditions or comorbidities. For example, EPA routinely calculates worker exposure separately from other exposures. In applying aggregate exposure assessments of pesticides, EPA does not include worker exposure. Risk assessments do not include exposures to multiple chemicals—and such exposures routinely occur to fenceline communities, farmworkers, and factory workers.

In the past, EPA has admitted that even with maximum feasible personal protective equipment (PPE) and engineering controls, including all provisions required by the WPS, risks to workers still exceed EPA’s levels of concern. A 2008 study analyzing poisonings of pesticide workers between 1998 and 2005 concluded that in 30% of the cases of high levels of pesticide exposure, all labeling requirements, including those involving re-entry and PPE, had been followed — clearly demonstrating that the WPS and/or labeling requirements are inadequate.

Farm work is demanding and dangerous physical labor. As the scientific literature confirms, farmworkers, their families, and their communities face extraordinary risks from pesticide exposures. Pesticide application and drift result in dermal, inhalation, and oral exposures that are typically underestimated. A 2004 study detected agricultural pesticides in homes near to agricultural fields. According to a 2010 study, workers experience repeated exposures to the same pesticides, evidenced by multiple pesticides routinely detected in their bodies. As a result of cumulative long-term exposures, farmworkers and their children, who often also work on the farms, are at risk of developing serious chronic health problems such as cancer, neurological impairments, and Parkinson’s disease. Children, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report (2012), face even greater health risks compared to adults when exposed to pesticides. For more information, read our factsheet, Children and Pesticides Don’t Mix.

Congress Should Improve Farmworker Protection in the Law. By leaving farmworker protection entirely under the pesticide law, Congress removed it from the oversight of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Congress should restore partial jurisdiction over the regulation of pesticide-related occupational hazards to OSHA to ensure better coordination between OSHA and EPA. Simultaneously, Congress should eliminate the small farms exemption from the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Congress should also increase OSHA and EPA appropriations to improve the agencies’ capacity to inspect more of the worksites they regulate, particularly given the Biden Administration’s clear focus on racial equity and justice.

Protections that are present in other environmental statutes are missing in FIFRA, and Congress should correct this oversight. It should appropriate funds for more monitoring and enforcement.

Don’t Forget to Choose Organic Food. Our food choices have a direct effect on those who, around the world, grow and harvest what we eat. This is why food labeled organic is the right choice. In addition to serious health questions linked to actual residues of toxic pesticides on the food we eat, our food buying decisions support or reject hazardous agricultural practices and the protection of farmworkers and farm families. See Beyond Pesticides’ guide to Eating with a Conscience to see how your food choices can protect farmworkers. In addition to choosing organic, it is important to consider food labels that create standards for farmworker safety and fairness.

Tell EPA, Congress, and your Governor (Mayor in DC) to protect farmworkers from pesticides. Choose organic. 

Letter to EPA Administrator

A recent report, Exposed and At Risk: Opportunities to Strengthen Enforcement of Pesticide Regulations for Farmworker Safety, by the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law and Graduate School, in partnership with the nonprofit advocacy group, Farmworker Justice, again highlights the systemic racism of our country’s pesticide policies. Our nation depends on farmworkers, declared “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic, to feed us. Yet the occupational exposure to toxic pesticides by farmworkers is discounted by EPA, while study after study documents the disproportionate level of illness among farmworkers.

This acceptance of harm to farmworkers is embodied in national and state policies under the purview of EPA, Congress, and state agencies. Correcting the injustice requires a concerted effort at all levels. While I am encouraged to see the formation of EPA’s new Office of Environmental Justice and Civil Rights, the agency has a historical bias against preventive action to ensure the protection of those disproportionately poisoned by toxic chemicals. While critically important to clean up contaminated communities, EPA must stop the flow of toxic pesticides at the front end because of the disproportionate poisoning effects of use, handling, transportation, and disposal. We live in an age of practices and products that make toxic pesticides unnecessary and their use unconscionable. Yet, EPA insists on the acceptability of harm (which it calls risk), despite its failure to (i) recognize comorbidities and preexisting health conditions, (ii) consider a combination of multiple chemical exposure interactions, and (iii) cite extensive missing health outcomes information (e.g., on endocrine disruption) and a resulting high level of uncertainty. This combination amounts to systemic racism.

EPA’s Worker Protection Standards are inadequate to protect farmworkers. After several tries, the WPS still do not adequately protect farmworkers. These standards have been notoriously difficult to enforce and require no record keeping documenting whether the rules have been implemented and only minimal training—all of which can threaten farmworkers and their families.

In the past, EPA has admitted that even with maximum feasible personal protective equipment (PPE) and engineering controls, risks to workers still exceed EPA’s levels of concern. A 2008 study analyzing poisonings of pesticide workers concluded that in 30% of the cases of high levels of pesticide exposure, all labeling requirements, including those involving re-entry and PPE, had been followed — clearly demonstrating that the WPS and/or labeling requirements are inadequate.

Farm work is demanding and dangerous physical labor. As the scientific literature confirms, farmworkers, their families, and their communities face extraordinary risks from pesticide exposures. Pesticide application and drift result in dermal, inhalation, and oral exposures that are typically underestimated. As a result of cumulative long-term exposures, farmworkers and their children, who often also work on the farms, are at risk of developing serious chronic health problems such as cancer, neurological impairments, and Parkinson’s disease. Children, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics report (2012), face even greater health risks compared to adults when exposed to pesticides.

Please implement strong Worker Protection Standards and reverse the weakening changes of the Trump administration. More fundamentally, EPA must base its pesticide risk assessments on the dangers to the most vulnerable people—farmworkers and their families. EPA must reverse its policy and require that risk assessments adopt a standard that protects farmworkers. Penalties for violations of the WPS should be increased to reflect the grave harm caused to human health and safety. Higher penalties are crucial to create a deterrent effect.

Thank you.

Letter to U.S. Senators and Representative

A recent report, Exposed and At Risk: Opportunities to Strengthen Enforcement of Pesticide Regulations for Farmworker Safety, by the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law and Graduate School, in partnership with the nonprofit advocacy group, Farmworker Justice, again highlights the systemic racism of our country’s pesticide policies. Our nation depends on farmworkers, declared “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic, for ensuring that we are kept well-fed. Yet the occupational exposure to toxic pesticides by farmworkers is discounted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while study after study documents the disproportionate level of illness among farmworkers.

This acceptance of harm to farmworkers is embodied in national and state policies under the purview of EPA, Congress, and state agencies. Correcting the injustice requires a concerted effort at all levels. By leaving farmworker protection entirely under the pesticide law, Congress removed it from the oversight of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Congress should restore partial jurisdiction over the regulation of pesticide-related occupational hazards to OSHA to ensure better coordination between OSHA and EPA. Simultaneously, Congress should eliminate the small farms exemption from the OSH Act. Congress should also increase OSHA and EPA appropriations to improve the agencies’ capacity to inspect more of the worksites they regulate, particularly given the Biden Administration’s clear focus on racial equity and justice.

Protections that are present in other environmental statutes are missing in FIFRA, and Congress should correct this oversight. This could include consideration of a private right of action, a greater ability for EPA to address states’ nonattainment of minimum standards, and other measures to strengthen states’ incentives to remain in compliance.

While I am encouraged to see the formation of EPA’s new Office of Environmental Justice and Civil Rights, the agency has a historical bias against preventive action to ensure the protection of those disproportionately poisoned by toxic chemicals. While critically important to clean up contaminated communities, EPA must stop the flow of toxic pesticides at the front end because of the disproportionate poisoning effects of use, handling, transportation, and disposal. We live in an age of practices and products that make toxic pesticides unnecessary and their use unconscionable. Yet, EPA insists on the acceptability of harm (which it calls risk), despite its failure to (i) recognize comorbidities and preexisting health conditions, (ii) consider a combination of multiple chemical exposure interactions, and (iii) cite extensive missing health outcomes information (e.g., on endocrine disruption) and a resulting high level of uncertainty.

Congress should grant EPA greater authority to respond to states failing to meet enforcement goals, including the authority to impose sanctions related to the agriculture industry. Congress can look to other environmental statutes, such as the CAA, where it has given EPA the authority to impose sanctions for noncompliance in the interest of public health.

Congress should appropriate more funds to NIOSH’s SENSOR program to support states in consistently reporting data on acute pesticide-related illness and to expand the number of states in the program.

Thank you for taking action to protect farmworkers.

 Letter to Governor

A recent report, Exposed and At Risk: Opportunities to Strengthen Enforcement of Pesticide Regulations for Farmworker Safety, by the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law and Graduate School, in partnership with the nonprofit advocacy group, Farmworker Justice, again highlights the systemic racism of our country’s pesticide policies. Our nation depends on farmworkers, declared “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic, for ensuring that we are kept well-fed. Yet the occupational exposure to toxic pesticides by farmworkers is discounted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while study after study documents the disproportionate level of illness among farmworkers.

This acceptance of harm to farmworkers is embodied in national and state policies under the purview of EPA, Congress, and state agencies. Correcting the injustice requires a concerted effort at all levels. While I am encouraged to see the formation of EPA’s new Office of Environmental Justice and Civil Rights, the agency has a historical bias against preventive action to ensure the protection of those disproportionately poisoned by toxic chemicals. While critically important to clean up contaminated communities, EPA must stop the flow of toxic pesticides at the front end because of the disproportionate poisoning effects of use, handling, transportation, and disposal. We live in an age of practices and products that make toxic pesticides unnecessary and their use unconscionable. Yet, EPA insists on the acceptability of harm (which it calls risk), despite its failure to (i) recognize comorbidities and preexisting health conditions, (ii) consider a combination of multiple chemical exposure interactions, and (iii) cite extensive missing health outcomes information (e.g., on endocrine disruption) and a resulting high level of uncertainty.

As Governor of our state, please commit to reducing the influence of industry over pesticide regulation. At a minimum, prohibit enforcement officials from being involved in sale, manufacture, or distribution of pesticides, as California has done.

Please implement a neighbor notification system to reduce the incidence of exposure caused by pesticide drift.

Mandatory reporting requirements, both for pesticide use and for incidents of pesticide exposure, would offer protection to both farmworkers and the general public. The state department of health should more authority to conduct inspections and investigations of suspected pesticide exposure incidents, independent of the state’s designated lead agency.

Penalties for violations of the WPS (or state-equivalent regulations) should be increased to reflect the grave harm caused to human health and safety. Higher penalties are crucial to create a deterrent effect.

Thank you.

 

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