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Farmworker advocates press EPA to update pesticide rules

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Saying they are plagued by pesticides but protected by only a thin layer of government regulation, farmworkers and their advocates are pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to update rules that are two decades old, and, critics say, dangerously dated.

Farmworker advocates from Florida to California were in Washington Monday and Tuesday to press the EPA and members of Congress to tighten rules meant to protect agricultural laborers from pesticides in the fields.

Their target: The Worker Protection Standard, a set of EPA rules meant to reduce the risk of pesticide-related injuries for some 2.5 million agricultural workers and pesticide handlers at 600,000 agricultural establishments nationwide.

Yet, even as the perils of pesticides have become better known, EPA protections have not been seriously updated in 20 years.

And, the Center for Public Integrity reported last year, the federal agency can only guess at the number of pesticide-related injuries for workers who often toil in the shadows. In addition, the Center found, the EPA often hands off pesticide enforcement to the states — which receive and investigate modest numbers of complaints each year.

The mix of old regulations and thin enforcement leads to tangible problems for laborers in the fields, advocates say.

“For me it’s gut-wrenching to sit across from someone, look at their face, hear their stories, and what can we do? It’s terrible,” said Jeannie Economos, Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project Coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida.

Recently, Economos said, an undocumented worker — a woman about 30 years old and employed by a Florida plant nursery — came to complain about verbal abuse by her boss. As they talked, she said, the worker said she had trouble breathing for days after working near pesticides. “She sat in front of me and she shook the whole time, and she said she shakes all the time because she is exposed to pesticides,” Economos said.

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Citing such cases, worker rights and pesticide safety groups are pressing the EPA to enhance protections. Among their suggestions, they are asking the EPA to:

  • Provide more frequent and thorough pesticide safety training for farmworkers;
  • Ensure that agricultural laborers receive information about specific pesticides they handle, and protective equipment limiting exposure;
  • Mandate medical monitoring of workers handling pesticides that affect the nervous system.

“Farmworker families are exposed to pesticides in the form of residues on workers’ tools, clothes, shoes, and skin. The close proximity of agricultural fields to residential areas also results in aerial drift of pesticides into farmworkers’ homes, schools, and playgrounds,” Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law organization, said in a statement this week. “Research shows that children are especially vulnerable to harms from these exposures, even at very low levels.”

Such groups have long pressed for reform. In 2011, for instance, Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice sent then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson a 31-page letter seeking “long-overdue revisions” to rules.

Now, farmworker advocates say they expect the EPA to soon issue recommended updates to the Worker Protection Standard. Anticipating that, the advocates are pressing the agency and members of Congress for substantive changes.

“We feel it’s about time that they do this, and we’re really concerned that what the EPA has proposed does not get watered down in the process,” Economos said.

In a statement to the Center Wednesday afternoon, the EPA confirmed it is revamping the Worker Protection Standard. Among other areas, the EPA said it is examining the minimum age for handlers, personal protective equipment and ways to "improve enforcement capability."

"The proposed rule intends to reduce the risk of adverse effects to worker health from the use of agricultural pesticides," the agency said, adding that it intends to release proposed amendments in the spring of 2014.