Protecting farmworkers from toxic pesticide exposure

More than half of the farmworkers across the country are undocumented – so the lengthy debate over immigration reform is vital.  In the meantime, farmworkers’ already difficult jobs are sometimes made intolerable - even deadly - by exposure to toxic pesticides.  Revising pesticide safety regulations to improve protections for farmworkers is critical to their health and welfare and should be a top priority.

Regulatory authority for pesticide exposure is in the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The regulations known as the Worker Protection Standard have not been updated in over 20 years and are ineffective in preventing exposure in the fields.  More than a decade ago EPA admitted that even when there is full compliance with the Worker Protection Standard, “risks to the workers still exceed EPA’s level of concern.”  A decade later, those concerns should not be forgotten.  It’s time to make changes.

Pesticide exposure causes farmworkers to suffer more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other workforce nationwide. Short-term effects include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, blindness, nausea, dizziness, headache, coma and even death.  Pesticides also cause infertility, neurological disorders and cancer.

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The EPA estimates that as many as 20,000 workers are affected annually – but the real number is likely much higher, as many workers have no access to medical attention.   Pesticide exposure symptoms can resemble the flu, so many farmworkers might not even realize they’ve been exposed.  And farmworkers, especially those who lack legal work authorization, are less likely to report violations of workplace safety for fear of losing their jobs or being deported.

Farmworkers’ family members are similarly affected.  Pesticide exposure is attributed to higher rates of birth defects, developmental delays, leukemia and brain cancer among farmworker children.   Pesticides are sprayed on fields next to schools and homes.  Mixing contaminated clothing in the laundry is dangerous.  Some farmworkers are coached by concerned worker advocates not to hug their children when they come home from work. Instead, they’re warned to ignore the natural instinct to hold their kids after a long day until they can be certain even their embrace is not toxic.

The nature of working with crops likely always will involve some occupational danger.  But farmworkers deserve more than the meager set of protections we offer them now.  Simple revisions to the Worker Protection Standard should require more frequent and thorough safety training on farms, ensure that workers receive information about the specific pesticides used in their work, and require medical monitoring of workers handling toxic pesticides.

Moreover, it’s time to require Spanish translation of pesticide labels and implement buffer zones around schools and residential areas to protect farmworker communities from aerial drift.  These basic protections are hardly unwarranted for the men and women who put food on our tables every day.

Exposed and Ignored: How Pesticides are Endangering Our Nation’s Farmworkers
, a new report from Farmworker Justice, outlines the health risks posed by pesticides and specific recommendations to help make farmworkers and their families safer.  The report is available online at www.farmworkerjustice.org.

Goldstein is president of Farmworker Justice, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization in Washington, D.C. that works to improve living and working conditions for migrant and seasonal farmworkers.