Between long hours, low pay and hazardous working conditions, farmworkers – many of whom are from minority and low-income communities – bear incredible health costs in order to sustain our country’s food supply. Pesticide exposure is one of the main occupational hazards of farm work, with both short-term health effects that can lead to lost days of work and school and hefty medical bills, and increased long-term risks of cancer and neurological problems. The EPA states that agricultural workers report between 1800 and 3000 pesticide exposure limits annually. It has been 22 years since the EPA last updated their agricultural Worker Protection Standard, and so the recently enacted changes, which more stringently protect farmworker health, are a welcome development, but are they enough?
The changes increase the frequency of pesticide handling training from every five years to a more robust annual requirement, which will include information about take-home exposures from dirty clothing and boots. They also establish “buffer zones” to protect workers from over-exposure to fumes and sprays. The regulations also set an age limit of eighteen for the handling and mixing of pesticides. Previously, there were no restrictions on children’s exposure to pesticides. The Farmworker Association of Florida wrote that the protections “bring farmworkers more in parity with health and safety regulations already covering workers in most other professions in the United States.”
The regulations have been met with praise but also criticism from advocacy groups. While age limits and training requirements have been celebrated, many have commented that the new rules do not require workers to undergo routine medical monitoring for pesticide exposures, a protective measure that is required in both California and Washington.
Some advocates have also identified language barriers in communicating about the risks of pesticides, which typically have warning labels in English. “More than 80 percent of workers in the “salad bowls” of Salinas, Calif. or Yuma, Ariz., are Hispanic,” NPR reported in 2013. A further step for protecting worker safety would be to require making bilingual information available for pesticide products, which the recently updated regulations do not require. While advocacy group Farmworker Justice celebrated the regulations, Virginia Ruiz, the group’s director of occupational and environmental health, also stated in 2013 that “without bilingual labeling, today’s Spanish-speaking agricultural workforce is at great risk for pesticide exposure.”
Another pitfall of the regulations rests at the intersection of environmental justice and our nation’s debate over immigration reform. Paola Betchart of the Worker Justice Center of New York stated in an interview with North Country Public Radio that many farmworker illnesses go unreported because of the undocumented status of workers, who are fearful they will be deported if they seek medical attention. Justice for our nation’s farmworkers will require us to address much more than just pesticide exposure levels, but the new regulations are certainly a positive – and long-awaited – first step.
Learn more about farmworker exposures to pesticides here.