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Daily News Blog

16
Feb

Disproportionate Pesticide Hazards to Farmworkers and People of Color Documented. . .Again

Danger of pesticides: US pesticide regulation is failing the hardest-hit communities—including farmworkers and people of color—in ongoing environmental injustice.

(Beyond Pesticides, February 16, 2024) A report released in January, US pesticide regulation is failing the hardest-hit communities. It’s time to fix it, finds “people of color and low-income communities in the United States and around the world continue to shoulder the societal burden of harmful pollution.” More specifically, the authors state that “ongoing environmental injustice is the disproportionate impact these communities suffer from pesticides, among the most widespread environmental pollutants.” The report follows an earlier article by the same lead authors and others (see earlier coverage) on the long history of documented hazards and government failure to protect farmworkers from pesticide use in agriculture. In a piece posted by Beyond Pesticides earlier this week, the serious weaknesses in the worker protection standard for farmworkers are documented.  

The latest report was led by Nathan Donley, environmental health science director at the Center for Biological Diversity and Robert Bullard, known as the “Father of Environmental Justice” and executive director of the Robert D. Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University in Houston. In addition to these authors, the 2022 review was coauthored by Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida, Iris Figueroa of Farmworker Justice, Jovita Lee of Advance Carolina, Amy K. Liebman of Migrant Clinicians Network, Dominica Navarro Martinez of the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides and Fatemeh Shafiei of Spelman College.

Today 83 percent of farmworkers consider themselves Hispanic/Latino, which makes them the ethnic group most affected by agricultural chemicals. They usually earn less than $20,000 per year. It’s difficult for them to find jobs other than field labor, as there is almost no upward mobility in agriculture and many of their skills are not transferable to other occupations. Since the Bracero Program (1942-1964) which provided some 4.6 million temporary Mexican workers to American agriculture, farmworkers have been excluded from labor and occupational safety protections. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defers all policy on pesticide protections to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which then fails to follow through on promises to require more protection for agricultural workers by employers.

Farmworkers and other poor people also take the brunt of pollution from industrial facilities, including pesticide manufacturing plants, because the cheapest real estate is near those facilities, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) people are often “redlined” out of other neighborhoods. The review authors found that African Americans and Latinos are “more than twice as likely [as whites] to live within a mile of a hazardous chemical facility.” And they may live in substandard housing subject to pests and resulting in frequent  use of pesticides in their homes. Additionally, farmworkers, some of whom can be pesticide applicators, often live very near the fields and orchards where pesticides are applied and drift or volatilize and move off the target drift.

A 2015 study by University of California Berkeley scientists found that pesticides threaten users’ health more than exposure to air pollution, contaminated drinking water, and traffic (although all these impacts are also harmful). The scientists found that “the 60% of zip codes with the highest proportion of residents of color host [more than] 95% of agricultural pesticide use in the state.” And while there is overlap between race or ethnicity and poverty, the former are more predictive of pollution burdens than poverty is.

It is well established that children of farmworkers, children who live near fields, and children who work in fields are exposed to multiple pesticides, including organophosphates, organochlorines, and pyrethroids. These exposures can result in cancers, developmental problems, autism, and learning disabilities, among other consequences. The Bullard-Donley team reports that, “In 2019, more than eight million pounds of pesticides linked to childhood cancers were used in the 11 California counties that had a majority Latinx population (greater than 50%), resulting in 4.2 pounds of these pesticides per person” compared with 0.35 pounds “in the 25 California counties with the fewest Latinx residents (less than 24%).” The two groups of counties had similar land area and population size.

There are numerous structural reinforcements for the exposure and health disparities suffered by farmworkers. The lack of equitable intent by both EPA and OSHA is a major one. OSHA has essentially abandoned responsibility for occupational protection and redirected it to EPA. Bullard and Donley point out that the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA), which revised the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, set a new safety standard of “’reasonable certainty that no harm will result’ to people exposed to pesticides through food and all other non-occupational exposure routes,” explicitly excluding occupational exposure. [Note that this is a risk assessment standard with a large range of acceptable hazards.] The advancement in FQPA is the requirement to evaluate for cumulative exposure to pesticides that have a common mechanism of toxicity, aggregating exposure through residues in air, water, land, and food. But, this cumulative risk review is not required to, and EPA does not, include occupational exposures, so the old FIFRA standard still applies, under which an exposure should not result in “‘unreasonable risk to man or the environment, taking into account the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of the use of any pesticide.’” Without consideration of cumulative exposure, the toxic body burden for farmworkers and others occupationally exposed causes disproportionate harm.

This creates what has long been called an unconscionable double standard. According to the Bullard-Donley team, it allows EPA to take a risk-only approach for the general population and at least claim that it approves a pesticide only if it finds the pesticide will not result in significant harm; but for farmworkers, EPA applies a cost-benefit analysis and allows worker exposures “as long as the purported benefit of the pesticide, presumably to the grower, sufficiently offsets those harms.” Profits for one set of participants in an activity do not justify physical and mental harm to other participants, although this has been the American standard for centuries.

The authors show that EPA proposed applying the same standard to judge the risk of exposures whether they are from “regular” life activities or from occupational activities in 2009, but “fierce opposition” from the American Chemistry Council and the pesticide industry has kept the proposal suspended in draft form.

OSHA has set exposure standards for more than 25 industrial chemicals such as formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, and acrylonitrile, but according to the Bullard-Donley team, “[T]here is no national requirement for employers to provide medical monitoring for farmworkers seeking to prevent chronic, harmful pesticide exposures.”

EPA and OSHA do not meaningfully enforce even their rules, which critics have called weak. EPA’s Worker Protection Standard has an average compliance inspection rate for the years 2015-2019 of 1.2 percent, according to the Bullard-Donley review. Almost half of that tiny number of inspections resulted in violations, but approximately 81 percent of those resulted in warnings only.

The failings of U.S. pesticide policy are also distributed globally. For example, U.S. manufacturers exported some 28 million pounds of pesticides from 2001 to 2003. These included pesticides banned in the US and pesticides regulated by international treaties. Under FIFRA, EPA is supposed to require exports not registered in the US to be labeled, but in 2007 only 3 percent of such pesticides were labeled as harmful to human health. Most such exports go to the developing areas of south and southeast Asia and east Africa, reproducing the ethnic and racial injustices present in the U.S.

Beyond Pesticides has covered environmental justice issues numerous times, such as last June’s “This Juneteenth, We Highlight the Ongoing Fight for Environmental Justice” and sponsorship of the National Forum, which is designed to “magnify voices with the knowledge and agency to advance solutions—or alternative strategies—in the form of changes in practices and policies.” See talks on the issue from last year’s 40th anniversary Forum.

The Bullard-Donley team stresses that society must apply the Precautionary Principle. The 1998 Wingspread Statement expresses it as follows: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.” But adopting this principle, the Bullard-Donley authors concede, is “unattainable in the near term.” They suggest the following in the meantime:

  • eliminate the double standard for workers – especially farmworkers – and the general public;
  • establish a monitoring and accountability process to achieve environmental justice;
  • strengthen worker protections;
  • reduce unintended pesticide harms;
  • protect children adequately;
  • stop exporting unregistered pesticides;
  • and, lastly and perhaps most difficult, “assess and rectify regulatory capture within the EPA pesticide office.”

The Bullard-Donley team’s work presents a comprehensive picture of the ways U.S. pesticide policies are distorted and unjust. Converting to regenerative organic agriculture, including eliminating synthetic pesticides – especially those made from fossil fuels – would be the single best and most direct way to improve the plight of farmworkers. While we work on that, we can press governments to enforce existing protections and consequences for violators. We could narrow the disparities by reducing farmworker exposures, preventing acute exposure episodes, training workers in proper use of pesticide applicators, monitoring their pesticide body burdens, and providing medical care. It’s the least the beneficiaries of their hard work owe them. Moreover, helping farmworkers will help everyone. The Bullard-Donley document provides both the wide and deep evidence of environmental injustice and a roadmap to its correction. See Beyond Pesticides’ Keeping Organic Strong and Agricultural Justice webpage.

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

Sources
US pesticide regulation is failing the hardest-hit communities. It’s time to fix it. Nathan Donley and Robert Bullard, January 18, 2024

Pesticides and environmental injustice in the USA: root causes, current regulatory reinforcement and a path forward, Nathan Donley, Robert D. Bullard, Jeannie Economos, Iris Figueroa, Jovita Lee, Amy K. Liebman,  Dominica Navarro Martinez and Fatemeh Shafiei, BMC Public Health (2022) 22:708 [Open access] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35436924/

Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Cumulative Environmental Health Impacts in California: Evidence From a Statewide Environmental Justice Screening Tool (CalEnviroScreen 1.1), Lara Cushing, MPH, MA, John Faust, PhD, Laura Meehan August, MPH, Rose Cendak, MS, Walker Wieland, BA, and George Alexeeff, PhD, Am J Public Health. 2015 November; 105(11): 2341–2348 [Open access] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4605180/

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