Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

EPA’s New Farmworker Pesticide Standards Leave Unanswered Questions


Raucous laughter fills a small communal kitchen as ten men shout and joke with each other in Spanish after a long day of picking apples on an orchard in Orleans County in Western New York.

They’re playing a game of charades. But instead of pantomiming movie titles or celebrities, the men are acting out symptoms of acute pesticide exposure, which include things like rashes, headaches, vomiting, and eye irritation.

The game is part of a training put on by the Worker Justice Center—a labor advocacy group—to teach workers about pesticide safety and their rights. In person trainings like these will soon be more frequent on farms, now that the EPA has released updated standards for farmworker protection that include requirements for annual training. The update—announced this fall—is the first time the agency has changed its Worker Protection Standards in 23 years.

Regulators and farmworker advocates say the changes to these standards are overdue, but some groups representing farmers object to the change. Both sides see challenges ahead for implementing and enforcing the standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that each year there are 10,000 to 20,000 incidents of pesticide poisoning for people work on farms, nurseries, and commercial forest land. Advocacy groups say there may be many more. In addition to symptoms caused by acute exposure, the EPA is concerned that repeated, low level exposure to pesticides may have long-term health effects.

When new regulations kick in early 2017, farmers will be required comply with tightened safety measures.  The updated standards include measures such as expanded requirements for no-entry zones to protect  workers from pesticide overspray, expanded access to information about pesticides, changes to personal protection equipment standards, a minimum age requirement for working with pesticides (no children under 18), and more.

Training is key to safety

One of the biggest changes is the mandatory annual training—it used to be required every five years. Paola Betchart of the Worker Justice Center explains pesticide exposure is preventable if you know how to protect yourself. The new regulations expand the types of the things workers must learn in training, including instructions to reduce pesticides on work clothing that may come home with them at the end of the work day.

The new standards require an EPA-trained certified trainer to stay in the room after playing training videos to ask and answer questions. This is key, says Betchart.

“The quality of the training is important, because if they just see one video that is very old, some of them they don’t get all the full information,” she says.

National farm industry representatives don’t believe annual trainings are needed, especially if workers passed training exams in the past. “To me, that seems to be a bit wasteful,” says Daren Coppock, President and CEO of the Agricultural Retailers Association.

He sees it as just another rule that state and federal governments impose on agriculture, straining their businesses in many small ways, what he calls a “death by a thousand cuts.”

But says Judith Enck, EPA administrator for the region that includes New York State, the EPA wants to ensure safety information is top of mind for farmworkers. “Five years is just far too long to remember vital information,” Enck says.

The risk of speaking up

At their recent training, the group of New York apple pickers said they’ve had symptoms, but aren’t sure if they were from allergies or pesticides. Sometimes, they’re similar. And they didn’t know where to find out which chemicals were used in their fields and what their effects were. (Current EPA standards require that information be available to them.)

An apple picker named Isabel (we’ve agreed to call her by her first name), recalls a time she and a group of coworkers noticed sprayers working about ten rows away. She says they felt droplets of pesticides sprinkling down on them and later experienced nausea and headaches, but were told the substance wasn’t toxic.

But when training or other safety measures are inadequate, it can be hard for farmworkers to do anything about it, for fear of risking their jobs.

“We’re afraid that if we speak out, if we say that they treat us poorly, they won’t bring us back to the farm,” said one man, named Juan who we’ve agreed to only call by his first name. 

EPA’s Enck says one goal of the updated standards is to protect against retaliation for whistleblowers.

“You and I are not exposed to pesticides when we show up to work every day, neither should farmworkers. They deserve fair and equitable working conditions,” says Enck.

How to enforce new rules

Enforcing the EPA’s standards is a task left to state agencies. Farmworker advocates claim many states are not doing enough to make sure existing standards are enforced, let alone regulate the new ones.

But agricultural industry groups claim farmers already comply with the law which requires them to follow the instructions on the pesticide’s label.

“I’m not sure that a duplicative layer of regulations makes anybody safer. It does increase the paperwork burden,” says Coppock.

In New York, where there are 35,500 farms, inspections are done by the Department of Environmental Conservation. In the last fiscal year, the department conducted 22 inspections, found 14 violations, and issued 6 warnings and no fines.

In contrast, California, a state with 76.400 farms, has some of the strictest rules in the country governing pesticides and how they can be used. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation conducts approximately 9,500 field inspections each year.

Charlotte Fadipe, spokesperson for this California agency calls enforcement critical. “Farming, to us, is an outdoor factory, and it does not make sense to have that factory unsafe,” she says. “We want to make sure that the workers are safe so we put in place some very, very tough regulations. People sometimes complain that they’re too tough, but for us it’s about protecting the people who grow our food.”

Missing data

Farming industry representatives say the EPA doesn’t have enough data to make a case to justify more stringent regulation of pesticide use.

Farmworker advocates agree more data is needed. But it would likely show the need for these regulations and strong enforcement of them, says Amy Liebman, Director of Environmental and Occupational Health for Migrant Clinicians Network.

“We would be able to collect more data if we had the following: One, if we had medical monitoring for pesticide applicators. Two, if we had a national system of reporting and it was a requirement, and three is we would like for clinicians to have more tests available to them.”

Still Liebman, who worked on a committee that helped advise the EPA on its updated standards, says they are a step in the right direction. “One of the goals that farmworker advocates have is to make sure at the very least, farmworkers are provided protections that are provided to all other workers in other industries,” she says.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media.

Michelle Faust, MA, is a reporter/ producer whose work focuses strongly on issues related to health and health policy. She joined the WXXI newsroom in February 2014, and in short time became the lead producer on the Understanding the Affordable Care Act series. Michelle is a reporter with Side Effects and regularly contributes to The Innovation Trail. Working across media, she also produces packages for WXXI-TV’s weekly news magazine Need to Know.