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.

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