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,

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