Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This is an improvement: Teens applying pesticides

Photo credit: Valley_Photographs via Flickr
by Fawn Pattison, Senior Advocate

This ought to give you a sense of just how inadequate the US EPA’s Worker Protection Standard for agricultural pesticides has been over the last 22 years:

Last week the EPA announced a proposal that would significantly strengthen the Worker Protection Standard, designed to prevent hazardous exposure to pesticides for the 2+ million people who harvest our food in the US. One of the proposal’s hallmarks: a new minimum age of 16 to mix, load and apply pesticides, or to re-enter fields for work before the required safety interval has expired (with an exemption for farm family members). The previous rule posed no minimum age at all (though separate regulations from the Department of Labor prevent teens younger than 16 from applying a subset of highly-toxic pesticides).

Does anyone else feel a little concerned about 16 and 17 year-olds applying pesticides on farms? Toxic Free NC asked North Carolina farmworkers – people who know a thing or two about how dangerous pesticides can be – what they believed should be the minimum age to work as a pesticide handler.

“One should be a responsible person, direct, who focuses, who is attentive to what he is doing.  Because one error can cost your life,” says Alfredo, a North Carolina tobacco worker interviewed by Toxic Free NC. “So, this person should be prepared in everything and be careful of doing the job, be responsible with the job. And well, a person of 16, 17, 14 years of age…they are not responsible.” Many workers felt that a pesticide handler should be someone over twenty. None of the 45 workers we asked said that anyone under 18 should perform tasks involving pesticide use.

To be sure, the proposed changes to the Worker Protection Standard would make work with pesticides on farms significantly safer, if implemented well and properly enforced (that’s a big “if”). For example, the EPA has proposed annual safety trainings – a huge step forward from the current standard of training workers on pesticide safety only once every five years. The training content would be expanded to make sure that workers know about the long-term health effects of pesticide exposure, and how pesticide exposure can affect the health of their spouses and children when pesticide residues travel home on their hair, skin and clothes.

But the proposal also takes some notable steps backwards – like removing the requirement that employers post all the information about recent pesticide applications at a central point where workers can review it. EPA declined to require medical monitoring for workers handling the most toxic pesticides – a step that health agencies have been encouraging for years as a way of tracking whether the safety measures are actually working.

Overall, the proposed rules – which will affect more than 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina, and upwards of 2 million across the US – are indeed a significant improvement over the current state of affairs. But this statement may sound like faint praise, considering just how ineffective the current state of affairs has been at preventing worker pesticide exposure. Recent studies have found that North Carolina farmworkers and their families experience widespread pesticide exposure, even when following the current safety requirements.

The chemical industry will argue energetically that new regulations are not needed – that just enforcing the rules we already have would fix the problem. For the EPA to pass stronger pesticide rules, it’s critical that those who support them make their voices heard. EPA will be accepting public comment on the proposed rule for 90 days through the website. For those of us who want safe food, and care about the people who harvest it, this is a great opportunity to make a difference – and one that we’re not likely to have again anytime soon.

Not up for writing your own comment letter? Sign our petition to raise the minimum age for pesticide handlers to 18 years old.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Place Matters

by Levy Schroeder, Executive Director

As I settle into my new place after relocating to North Carolina from Washington, D.C., I’m reflecting on the meaning and importance of “place”. Place is a tough thing to define; our perspectives are unique.

However differently we define “place”, I am impressed by the importance that it plays in our lives. Place shelters us, protects us, supports us and nourishes us. It anchors us to our values and influences our choices.

Place is part of our identity. Where we live has a tremendous impact on how we live: it can determine health, economic status, educational opportunity, access to resources and general well-being.

Place stretches beyond the confines of our homes. In this age of the global market, the entire world supplies us with food, fuel, clothing and technology. Place stretches across the globe and intensifies our dependence upon its resources. No place is isolated from another.

North Carolina is beautiful place. Mountains. Beaches. Shimmering lakes, and long rambling rivers. Rolling hills rich with agriculture that grows our nation’s food supply. Thriving urban areas with all the amenities any human could need. It’s a great place for families to provide a safe and healthy place for their children to live, grow, learn and play.

But for too many in this place called North Carolina, toxic chemicals and pesticides in our food, water and air degrade the quality of life we seek in this place we call home.

When one of us is made ill from exposure to dangerous, unhealthy pesticides, or one of us is excluded from the place where decisions are made about our health and safety, everyone in North Carolina suffers the consequences. This is a sad reality for this place, but we are here together because we believe this is not acceptable.

I came to Toxic Free North Carolina because I believe we can build a truly toxic-free community. I’m proud to inherit the 26-year legacy of this strong, bold organization and to lead us through the hard work ahead on the horizon.

We will work together to build upon the tireless efforts of the founders, board members and staff. We will put a premium on our sense of place, recognizing that our community is inextricably bound to our neighbors.

We will safeguard our communities by expanding our efforts to bring much needed reforms to regulation of pesticides and toxic chemicals, and we'll work to reduce our childrens’ risk of exposure where they learn and play. And we’ll keep finding ways to make work environments safer (especially for farmworkers), and to make safer, chemical-free food accessible to everyone.

It will be no easy task, and I have a hard act to follow, but I know we can do it together. I’ve got an energetic, passionate staff, board of directors, volunteers and supporters. And most importantly, I’ve got you. This is a great place to start.

Contact Levy: or (919) 348-9789

Thursday, February 20, 2014

NEWS RELEASE: New pesticide rules seek to address long-standing safety problems

EPA proposes updating Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Pesticides after more than twenty years of problems.

WASHINGTON DC– In North Carolina and Florida, three babies born in 2005 brought to light in the most painful way that pesticide exposure poses dangers to farmworkers and their children. All three babies were born with severe birth defects. Their mothers had worked together on tomato farms for the produce company Ag-Mart in both states. State investigators found hundreds of instances of pesticide safety problems, but were unable to prove pesticide violations in the case, because of loopholes in the Worker Protection Standard – the very pesticide rules they were trying to enforce.

The federal Worker Protection Standard, first adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1992, is notoriously difficult to enforce. The standard does not require record-keeping to document whether pesticide rules have actually been followed – that loophole doomed the Ag-Mart case. The Worker Protection Standard requires only minimal training on the risks that pesticide exposure can pose to workers’ children and families, so many workers don’t find out about those hazards until after the worst has happened. Today the EPA proposed strengthening the Worker Protection Standard to address many pesticide safety concerns – including those raised in the high-profile birth defects case.

The Worker Protection Standard was also designed with adult workers in mind. But agriculture is different from most other industries in that it allows children to join labor crews at 12 years old – even at 10 in some crops – and these children are exposed to pesticides on the job. Yesenia Cuello and her sister Neftali began working on tobacco and sweet potato farms in North Carolina when Yesenia was 14 and Neftali was 12. Both girls report that they saw pesticides used nearby and were even exposed to the drift, but never knew what pesticides were. “We never heard the word ‘pesticide’ or had a safety training until 4 years later,” says Yesenia. “I assumed it was some kind of fertilizer.”

An estimated 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States. The nation’s 1–2.4 million farmworkers face the greatest threat from the health impacts of these chemicals. Ten to twenty thousand farmworkers are injured by pesticides on the job every year in the US. Short-term effects of pesticide exposures can include skin and eye injuries, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems, and even death. Long-term exposure on the job can increase the risk of serious chronic health problems such as cancer, birth defects, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease for farmworkers, their families, and their children.

Advocates who work with farmworkers welcomed news of the proposed rule change. “For too long, the people who pick food for our tables have had to put their own health at risk, and their children’s health at risk, just by going to work every day,” stated Fawn Pattison, Senior Advocate at Toxic Free North Carolina. “We are pleased that the EPA has proposed strengthening this outdated safety standard, and will work together with North Carolina’s farmworkers to ensure that it really does protect the health of farmworker families in our state and across the nation.”

Last week 52 members of Congress, led by Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Linda Sanchez of California, urged EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a letter to release the proposed rule, stating that the current agricultural worker protection standard is "limited" and "insufficient" to protect workers from the hazards of handling pesticides.  The same week, California-based Pesticide Action Network submitted a petition to McCarthy to strengthen the Worker Protection Standard, signed by more than 18,000 citizens.

The proposed revisions to the Worker Protection Standard can be viewed on the EPA’s website. The US EPA will be accepting comments from the public on the proposed changes through May.

Fawn Pattison, Toxic Free North Carolina
(919) 833-5333,

Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice
(202) 745-5221,

Dr. Margaret Reeves, Pesticide Action Network North America
(415) 728-0176,

Jeannie Economos, Farmworker Association of Florida
(407) 886-5151,

Friday, February 7, 2014

Shopping for kids' stuff? You've got to read this.

by Fawn Pattison, Senior Advocate

Photo by amseaman via Flickr
Recently I had to buy a new car booster seat for my older child, who is four. She'd outgrown her toddler carseat, and as I usually do with any significant purchase, I did my homework.

I wanted the booster with the best safety rating. It had to perform well in crashes, and protect the head and neck, not just the body. After lots of reading, I settled on just the right model, and ordered the chic-yet-practical black-and-gray one. And then I started to fret.

While I'd spent hours poring over crash test results, there was no way to know what kinds of toxic flame retardants had been used in the carseats I was reviewing. Manufacturers in the U.S. don't have to share that information, even though many of the flame retardants used in children's products like carseats have been linked to neurological harm and increased risk of cancer. She's going to be sitting in that thing every day, inhaling whatever it's off-gassing, snuggling up in it (mouth open, drooling) during long car trips to her grandparents' house. I don't want to expose her to anything that could put her health at risk.

And this is the conundrum I find myself in almost every time I have to buy something for my kids. Carseat, bed, shoes, sippy cups... there's no way to know what kinds of toxics are in there.

Until now. Because in 2008 Washington state passed a law that highlighted 66 "Chemicals of Concern" -- things like the toxic flame retardants -- used in children's products. The largest manufacturers now have to actually test their products for the 66 toxics on the list and - get this! - make the information public. Seriously. Public.

So they've just started releasing the results, and they're not pretty. Washington Toxics Coalition just released a report on what manufacturers like Target, Walmart, Nike and Walgreens reported from March to September 2013 (read the report here). 

Among the total 4,605 reports of toxic chemicals in children’s products are reports of toxic flame retardants linked to cancer, learning disabilities and fertility problems. In the report’s findings:

  • Bisphenol A (BPA) was reported in plastic used in dolls and soft toys. BPA is a developmental and reproductive toxicant.
  • Antimony trioxide, a carcinogen, was reported in toy vehicles.
  • The Tris flame retardant TCEP was reported in baby car seats. It is a carcinogen and reproductive toxicant.
  • Children’s plastic plates, bowls, mugs and cups, drinking glasses and other tableware was reported as containing ethylbenzene, toluene, and phthalates as well as formaldehyde.
  • The flame retardant deca-BDE was reported in the plastic of baby car and booster seats, even though manufacturers made a voluntary agreement with EPA in 2009 to end the use of deca-BDE in most products by now, and deca-BDE was banned in Washington state in 2007.
I have to confess that reading this report made me want to pack up my kids (without carseats) and go live in a cave somewhere. But I got over that, and now I'm just mad again. Mad at manufacturers who choose shoddy chemical ingredients over our kids' health. Mad at Congress for taking so long to fix the federal toxics law that's the reason for all these "Chemicals of Concern" in our kids' lives. But also grateful for the steps forward that Washington State has taken, and hopeful that North Carolina will follow suit before too long.

Check out to let the nation's largest retailers know that it's time to get the toxics out of the stuff they're selling us.