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EPA Proposes Increased Pesticide Protections for Workers

Critics Argue Revisions Do Not Go Far Enough


Health Letter, April 2014

On Feb. 20, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced proposed revisions to a 40-year-old set of rules known as the Worker Protection Standard, which outlines a series of protections from pesticide exposure that agricultural employers are required to provide to their workers.[1] (The rule was officially published in the Federal Register on March 19.[2]) However, worker safety advocates, while welcoming the proposal, pointed out that the changes fall far short of what is needed to fully protect workers from the deadly effects of these ubiquitous chemicals.

History of the Worker Protection Standard

While the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for protecting the safety and health of most workers in the United States, including that of farmworkers and pesticide handlers from most occupational hazards, the EPA has historically had jurisdiction over occupational exposure to pesticides.[3] The EPA implemented the Worker Protection Standard in 1974 to reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning and injury for the nation’s farmworkers.[4] In 1992, the EPA issued revisions that expanded the scope of the standard to more agricultural businesses and to pesticide handlers, changed the requirements for protective clothing and equipment for workers, and strengthened worker notifications of pesticide-treated areas, among other provisions.[5] The changes proposed in February are the first to the Worker Protection Standard since 1992[6] and are the culmination of a nearly eight-year-long effort to update the rules.[7]

Pesticides and pesticide-induced injury and illness

Pesticides encompass a wide variety of synthetic and naturally occurring substances intended to block or kill unwanted plants, animals, bacteria and fungi in agricultural and other settings.[8] Pesticide products include herbicides, insecticides, rodenticides, fungicides, antibacterial disinfectants and others. Many are toxic to humans, though the toxic dose varies widely among different products. While use of the products has declined somewhat in recent decades, almost 900 million pounds of pesticide ingredients were applied to U.S. cropland in 2007.[9]

Pesticides can exert harmful effects on humans following skin contact, inhalation or ingestion. Acute pesticide poisonings result from large exposures over a short time period and can manifest with a wide variety of symptoms, each specific to the category of pesticide used.[10] Some common symptoms include rashes, dizziness, profuse sweating, airway irritation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Chronic neurological deficits may persist after an episode of acute poisoning[11] or may result from long-term, low-level pesticide exposures. Based on a review of studies that have been conducted in young children, the authors of the 2013 edition of the National Pesticide Information Center’s (NPIC’s) Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisonings conclude that “consistent evidence of neurodevelopmental toxicity arising from chronic, low-level exposure in gestational or early postnatal life is accumulating.”[12] These include developmental disabilities, such as mental and motor delay and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.[13] Thus, pregnant female farmworkers are doubly susceptible to the dangers of pesticide exposure, with their own health and that of their pregnancies at risk.

In non-pregnant adults, several studies have strongly suggested an association between long-term, low-level exposure to certain pesticides and a number of neurological defects, such as decreased motor and sensory function and behavioral disturbances, in addition to debilitating conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.[14] Animal studies have provided compelling evidence of the toxicity of certain pesticides to brain cells.[15]

The EPA also classifies at least 32 pesticides as “probable human carcinogens” or “likely to be carcinogenic in humans.”[16] The authors of the NPIC’s 2013 study concluded that “[t]he pediatric cancer types with the most compelling evidence for an association with pesticides are leukemia and brain tumors.”[17] In adults, leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma were noted in most studies reviewed by the authors of the report, while prostate, pancreatic, breast and kidney cancers were “among the more consistently reported findings in studies of adults.”[18]

An epidemic of (underreported) injuries and illnesses

The EPA estimates that anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 pesticide poisonings are diagnosed by physicians every year among the nation's 2 million farmworkers.[19] As is the norm with federal worker injury and illness data, the true number of cases is higher for several reasons. For one, underreporting — on the part of both workers and their employers — of occupational injuries and illnesses is widespread and likely a particularly severe problem in the agricultural workforce.[20]

Approximately half of all hired farmworkers are undocumented,[21] with the average income for individual farmworkers amounting to just $10,000 to $12,499 per year[22] and unemployment rates at least twice as high as in other economic sectors.[23] This legally and economically precarious workforce is unlikely to voice objections to inadequate safety protections or to report injuries or illnesses sustained in the course of a job to which they cling for survival.

The underreporting at worksites is exacerbated by the fact that most agricultural workers lack even the most basic access to health care,[24] which means that all but the most severe, acute poisonings are unlikely to come to the attention of the health care system. In addition, chronic illnesses caused by pesticides can occur years after exposure, resulting in many cases of cancer and other debilitating diseases that workers and physicians may never connect to the pesticide that could potentially have caused the illness.

Even less is known about the scale of pesticide-induced illness in the families of farmworkers, who are not included in occupational injury and illness data. Farmworkers can return home from work with pesticide residues on their clothing, inadvertently exposing their children and other family members to the effects of these toxins.[25]

Summary of the EPA’s proposed changes

Key provisions of the proposed updated Worker Protection Standard that would enhance protection of workers include the following:[26]

  • Employers would be required to post “no entry” signs at locations contaminated with high levels of the most dangerous pesticides.
  • For the first time, children under 16 years of age — except those working on a farm owned by a member of their immediate family — would be prohibited from re-entering a field immediately following a pesticide application and before the pesticide’s predetermined “re-entry” restrictive period has expired.[27] (The “re-entry” restrictive period refers to the length of time following a pesticide application that workers are prohibited from re-entering the field, with a few exceptions, including, under current law, some child laborers.[28])
  • Employers would be required to establish new buffer areas, up to 100 feet wide, around fields recently sprayed with pesticides. These buffers are intended to protect workers from exposure to the spray and fumes generated during pesticide application. (These restricted buffer area requirements currently apply only to nurseries and greenhouses.[29])
  • Pesticide handlers would have to use respirators that meet OSHA specifications to prevent inhalation of pesticides. (Currently, respirators for handlers are required only to “fit correctly,” with no further specification to minimize pesticide inhalation.[30])
  • Employers would be subject to more stringent record-keeping requirements, including a stipulation to record information on pesticide treatments and any potential safety violations involving worker exposure to pesticides. (Employers are not currently required by the EPA to keep records of either pesticide applications or trainings.[31])
  • Employers would be required to disclose, upon request, to farmworkers and their authorized representatives, including medical personnel, the specific chemicals used in pesticide treatments, including the pesticide label and Safety Data Sheets. (Safety Data Sheets provide chemical-specific hazard information. While OSHA requires employers to provide this information to most non-agricultural workers before they are exposed to non-pesticide hazardous chemicals and upon request, the EPA has never before required any such disclosure of pesticide Safety Data Sheets to farmworkers and pesticide handlers.[32])
  • Employers would be required to provide annual trainings for farmworkers on these and other pesticide protections. (These trainings are currently required only every five years.) The new trainings would also include instructions on how workers can reduce so-called “take-home” exposure from pesticide residues on their work clothing.[33]

What the proposed changes do not include

Despite these improvements, worker safety advocates have criticized the limited scope of the proposed changes. Some are worried that the new rules still would not require employers to provide certain pesticide information to workers in a language other than English,[34] even though only 30 percent of all hired farmworkers report that they can speak English well.[35] (The warning signs prohibiting entry to pesticide-treated areas do, however, have to be in both English and Spanish.[36])

Some advocates also have indicated that they prefer a minimum age of 18 rather than 16 for those allowed to handle or work in a field treated with pesticides, claiming that 16- and 17-year-olds are still susceptible to pesticide-related adverse developmental effects.[37] In addition, the continued exemption for family farms would mean that children of any age could still be exposed to dangerous levels of any pesticide.[38]

The EPA’s proposed changes would even eliminate a long-standing requirement that employers prominently post in a central location information on pesticides that have been applied to crop fields. The EPA claimed that the requirement “burden[ed] employers” unnecessarily.[39] The new rules would require disclosure of this information to workers only upon request, which advocates say is tantamount to eliminating the disclosure requirement entirely for many farmworkers reluctant to request the information from management.[40]

For these and other reasons, critics of the proposed changes are wary that the revisions will not lead to any significant reductions in injuries or deaths from pesticide exposure. The fact that it took almost eight years for the EPA to issue the proposed rule[41] adds to the frustration voiced by many advocates.

In an interview with The Pump Handle worker safety blog, United Farm Workers National Vice President Erik Nicholson summed up the sentiment among worker advocates who had hoped for more from the lengthy, still-incomplete rulemaking process: “It’s very frustrating for things to take so long and produce so little, including some steps backward.”[42]

Public Comments

The proposed changes were published in the Federal Register (FR) on March 19, 2014, and are available for public comment for 90 days after publication, or by June 17, 2014. Members of the public can submit their comments online at www.regulations.gov (type the following docket ID into the search box: EPA-HQ-OPP-2011-0184-0119) or by mailing comments to the following address:

OPP Docket
Environmental Protection Agency Docket Center (EPA/DC)
Mail code: 28221T
1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20460.



References

[1] Gillam C. U.S. proposes new safety rules for farm pesticide use. Reuters. February 20, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/20/us-usa-epa-pesticides-idUSBREA1J29K20140220. Accessed February 28, 2014.

[2] Proposed rule. Agricultural Worker Protection Standard Revisions: Pesticides. Federal Register. http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OPP-2011-0184-0119. Accessed March 31, 2014.

[3] Environmental Protection Agency. Agricultural Worker Protection Standard Revisions; Proposed Rule [RIN 2070-AJ22; FRL-9395-8]. Prepublication copy. February 20, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Greene R. Long-awaited EPA pesticide protections a 'mixed bag' for farmworkers. ProPublica. February 21, 2014. http://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/21/14287/long-awaited-epa-pesticide-protections-mixed-bag-farmworkers. Accessed March 4, 2014.

[7] Environmental Protection Agency. Agricultural Worker Protection Standard Revisions; Proposed Rule [RIN 2070-AJ22; FRL-9395-8]. Prepublication copy. February 20, 2014.

[8] Environmental Protection Agency. About Pesticides: types of pesticides. http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/about/types.htm. Accessed March 4, 2014.

[9] United States Department of Agriculture. Pesticide Use & Markets. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/chemical-inputs/pesticide-use-markets.aspx#.UxT0NY40yBD. Accessed March 4, 2014.

[10] Bulletin of the World Health Organization. Acute pesticide poisoning: a proposed reclassification tool. March 2008;86(3):205-209. http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/86/3/07-041814-table-T1.html. Accessed March 4, 2014.

[11] Reigart J, Roberts J (Ed.); National Pesticide Information Center. Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisonings. 6th Edition (2013). http://npic.orst.edu/rmpp.htm. Accessed March 13, 2014.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pesticide Illness & Injury Surveillance. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/pesticides/. Accessed March 4, 2014.

[20] Public Citizen. Petition for a heat standard. Sept. 1, 2011. http://www.citizen.org/documents/Petition-for-a-heat-standard-090111.pdf. Accessed March 14, 2014.

[21] United States Department of Agriculture. Profile of Hired Farmworkers, A 2008 Update. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err60.aspx. Accessed March 14, 2014.

[22] Environmental Protection Agency. Agricultural Worker Protection Standard Revisions; Proposed Rule [RIN 2070-AJ22; FRL-9395-8]. Prepublication copy. February 20, 2014.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Environmental Protection Agency. Fact sheet. Proposed Changes to the Farm Worker Protection Standard. http://www.epa.gov/oppfead1/safety/workers/proposed/proposed-wps-factsheet.pdf. Accessed February 28, 2014.

[27] Environmental Protection Agency. Agricultural Worker Protection Standard Revisions; Proposed Rule [RIN 2070-AJ22; FRL-9395-8]. Prepublication copy. February 20, 2014.

[28] Environmental Protection Agency. Restrictions After Pesticide Applications Under the Current WPS. http://www.epa.gov/oppfead1/safety/workers/restrictions-after-application.html. Accessed March 14, 2014.

[29] Environmental Protection Agency. Agricultural Worker Protection Standard Revisions; Proposed Rule [RIN 2070-AJ22; FRL-9395-8]. Prepublication copy. February 20, 2014.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Grossman E. Will farm workers be better protected? EPA proposes new pesticide protection standards but farm worker advocates see some steps backward. ScienceBlogs: The Pump Handle. March 3, 2014. http://scienceblogs.com/thepumphandle/2014/03/03/will-farm-workers-be-better-protected-epa-proposes-new-pesticide-protection-standards-but-farm-worker-advocates-see-some-steps-backward/. Accessed March 4, 2014.

[32] Environmental Protection Agency. Agricultural Worker Protection Standard Revisions; Proposed Rule [RIN 2070-AJ22; FRL-9395-8]. Prepublication copy. February 20, 2014.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Grossman E. Will farm workers be better protected? EPA proposes new pesticide protection standards but farm worker advocates see some steps backward. ScienceBlogs: The Pump Handle. March 3, 2014. http://scienceblogs.com/thepumphandle/2014/03/03/will-farm-workers-be-better-protected-epa-proposes-new-pesticide-protection-standards-but-farm-worker-advocates-see-some-steps-backward/. Accessed March 4, 2014.

[35] National Center for Farmworker Health (based on data provided in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Workers Survey). http://www.ncfh.org/docs/fs-Migrant%20Demographics.pdf. Accessed March 4, 2014.

[36] Environmental Protection Agency. Agricultural Worker Protection Standard Revisions; Proposed Rule [RIN 2070-AJ22; FRL-9395-8]. Prepublication copy. February 20, 2014.

[37] Grossman E. Will farm workers be better protected? EPA proposes new pesticide protection standards but farm worker advocates see some steps backward. ScienceBlogs: The Pump Handle. March 3, 2014. http://scienceblogs.com/thepumphandle/2014/03/03/will-farm-workers-be-better-protected-epa-proposes-new-pesticide-protection-standards-but-farm-worker-advocates-see-some-steps-backward/.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Greene R. Long-awaited EPA pesticide protections a 'mixed bag' for farmworkers. ProPublica. Feb. 21, 2014. http://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/21/14287/long-awaited-epa-pesticide-protections-mixed-bag-farmworkers. Accessed March 4, 2014.

[40] Grossman E. Will farm workers be better protected? EPA proposes new pesticide protection standards but farm worker advocates see some steps backward. ScienceBlogs: The Pump Handle. March 3, 2014. http://scienceblogs.com/thepumphandle/2014/03/03/will-farm-workers-be-better-protected-epa-proposes-new-pesticide-protection-standards-but-farm-worker-advocates-see-some-steps-backward/. Accessed March 4, 2014.

[41] Environmental Protection Agency. Agricultural Worker Protection Standard Revisions; Proposed Rule [RIN 2070-AJ22; FRL-9395-8]. Prepublication copy. February 20, 2014.

[42] Grossman E. Will farm workers be better protected? EPA proposes new pesticide protection standards but farm worker advocates see some steps backward. ScienceBlogs: The Pump Handle. March 3, 2014. http://scienceblogs.com/thepumphandle/2014/03/03/will-farm-workers-be-better-protected-epa-proposes-new-pesticide-protection-standards-but-farm-worker-advocates-see-some-steps-backward/. Accessed March 4, 2014.

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