PANNA: Worker Protections Fail Farmworkers


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Worker Protections Fail Farmworkers
March 31, 2003

On March 19, 2003, farmworker organizations and farmworker advocates across the U.S. strongly criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) for not strengthening the Worker Protection Standard (WPS). The groups, including the Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas, the Farmworker Association of Florida, the Farmworker Justice Fund, the Farmworker Health and Safety Institute, Organización en California de Líderas Campesinas, PANNA, United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, and others, charged that US EPA has failed to protect farmworkers and their families from both acute poisonings and long term health problems caused by exposure to hazardous pesticides. In addition, in providing weaker protections to farmworkers, which are predominantly from poor Mexican or Mexican-American communities, the US EPA is violating its' own commitment to environmental justice for the "fair treatment for people of all races, cultures, and incomes, regarding the development of environmental laws, regulations, and policies."

US EPA has been engaged in a three year review of the Worker Protection Standards which, the farmworker groups argue, has been hampered by failures in pesticide illness reporting, weak and inconsistent enforcement of existing regulations, and growers' lack of compliance. One striking example of weak enforcement was cited in a PANNA report, in which 4,069 violations for pesticide poisonings of farmworkers in California during 2000 resulted in only 520 fines (13% of cases), with most fines under $400.

Two to three million U.S. farmworkers and their families face increased risks of cancer. A study of 146,000 California Latino farmworkers in California (Mills and Kwong 2001) showed that, compared with the general Latino population, farmworkers were more likely to develop certain types of leukemia by 59%, stomach cancer by 70%, cervical cancer by 63%, and uterine cancer by 68%. Exposure to pesticides is associated with elevated levels of some cancers in both farmers and farmworkers, however farmworkers show unique rises in cancers of the mouth, pharynx, lung, and liver.

A U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report (GAO 2000) concluded that children who work in farm fields are "especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of pesticides and are not adequately protected from pesticide exposure. In addition to field exposure, children encounter pesticide residues on their parents' clothes and skin and pesticide drift in their homes, schools, and play areas. In a recent study in the apple-growing Wenatchee area of Washington State, researchers measured levels of organophosphate pesticide metabolites in urine and found that 56% of children whose parents worked in the orchards received organophosphate pesticide doses exceeding U.S. EPA's chronic reference dose for azinphos-methyl--a highly toxic nerve poison.

Compared to farmworkers, workers in non-agricultural industries are entitled to much more extensive training and chemical exposure information under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA's) Hazard Communication Standard. The OSHA Standard requires that workers be trained and informed about the use of all toxic substances in their workplace. Farmworkers are routinely excluded from this level of protection--EPA only requires one non-specific, short safety training every five years!

Pesticides banned for home use are routinely used in agriculture. Chlorpyrifos--one of the common organophosphorus pesticides responsible for many acute poisonings of farmworkers--was banned in 2002 for nearly all domestic uses because of its hazards to children. Nevertheless, EPA allows its continued widespread use in agriculture.

Farmworker organizations are calling for a series of recommendations to improve the WPS, including: (1) improved training for all workers working with or near pesticides; (2) accessible and timely information about all pesticide applications available to farmworkers and communities where pesticides are applied; (3) enforcement of the WPS by state authorities, including protecting workers' rights to file complaints, and by adequate investigations of those complaints and serious fines for violators.

The farmworker organizations and advocates will continue to work with the EPA to strengthen the WPS through their participation in the various workgroups; Hazard Communication, General Training Content and Train-the-Trainer Pilot.

Sources: Fields of Poison 2002, PANNA, http://www.panna.org/resources/documents/fieldsOfPoison2002.dv.html ; Mills, P.K. and S. Kwong. 2001, Cancer Incidence in the United Farmworkers of America (UFW) 1987-1997, Amer. J. Industrial Med. 40: 596-603; U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), 2000, Pesticides: Improvement Needed to Ensure the Safety of Farmworkers and Their Children (GAO/RCED-00-40).

Contacts: PANNA

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