GroundTruth Blog

Pesticide data on the chopping block

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by Margaret Reeves

This week PAN joined farmworkers and farmworker advocates in urging Congress to protect a small, unsung program that’s vital to the health and safety of the nation's nearly two million farmworkers: pesticide recordkeeping.

USDA's Pesticide Recordkeeping Program is on the congressional chopping block, though it has long served as an essential tool for the proper identification, treatment and ultimately, prevention of pesticide-related illnesses that are far too common among U.S. farmworkers.

This debate is taking place in the context of current negotiations in Washington, D.C. around the next multi-billion dollar Food and Farm Bill. The recordkeeping program is a drop in this massive bucket, with a price tag of about $2 million. And it’s worth every penny.

Farmworkers face pesticide poisoning

Today, as we celebrate the birth of farmworker leader and national hero Cesar Chavez, we call on Congress to continue the efforts of Chavez — and so many before and since — to ensure that farmworkers receive the same protections as other workers in this country. There is clearly a long way to go.

U.S. farmworkers make an average of $12,500 per year while working under the harshest conditions experienced by any U.S. worker. Among their many challenges is the dubious distinction of suffering more pesticide-related injuries than any other group of workers. Pesticide exposure occurs while applying pesticides, through contact with residues during cultivation and harvesting activities, or by working and living near pesticide-treated fields from which pesticides drift.

EPA estimates that every year, 10,000 to 20,000 farmworkers are poisoned on the job, and this startling figure actually grossly underrepresents actual farmworker poisonings. There are several reasons for this, and one of them is key: failure to identify the pesticide(s) implicated in the poisoning.

Pesticide data key to farmworker health

The Pesticide Recordkeeping Program, established by the 1990 Farm Bill, provides that basic information. It requires users to record their applications of the most hazardous pesticides, and provides for evaluation of compliance with record-keeping laws in the 27 states in the program.

Only when pesticide use records are available can pesticide-related health problems be properly identified, described, treated and prevented. California’s Pesticide Use Reporting program, also initiated in 1990, demonstrates both the feasibility and importance of pesticide use reporting.

Just one on-the-ground example: Pesticide use data helped communities in California's Central Valley, populated largely by farmworkers and their families, to identify one particular bad actor insecticide (chlorpyrifos) that was being used in neighboring fields. Their ensuing campaign lead to the establishment of buffer zones in their county, restricting use of the most hazardous pesticides around schools and other vulnerable sites. 

As we hear all the time from fans of our pesticideinfo.org database, the power of reliable, publicly accessible data can hardly be overstated.

Margaret Reeves's blog

is PAN's Senior Scientist. Follow @MargaretatPAN

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