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EPA considering new pesticide regulations

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The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced proposed changes to its Worker Protection Standard (WPS), which is the set of regulations that govern pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide exposure of agricultural workers. The Federal Register notice is scheduled for publication on March 2, 2014; a pre-publication copy of the proposed changes is available online now.

Although the EPA asserts that these proposed regulations are "an important milestone for the farm workers who plant, tend, and harvest the food that we put on our tables each day," the agency seems to lack a basic awareness of who these workers are, which may hamper its execution of any regulations that become final. For example, the EPA states that these proposed regulations will "increase protections from pesticide exposure for the nation's two million agricultural workers and their families [emphasis ours]." However, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health, "there are three million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States [emphasis ours]." (The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are 749,400 agricultural workers in the United States, but these are likely only the ones legally authorized to work in the United States, and employed on a non-seasonal basis. PBS reports that as many as 1.3 million American citizens are migrant agricultural workers.)

The EPA's proposed regulations are available in Spanish, but it seems unlikely that a migrant worker has the internet access required to read and comment on the regulations. Additionally, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that "half of all hired crop farm workers lack legal authorization to work in the United States," making it unlikely that they would report any violations of EPA regulations -- old or new -- by their employers, even if they were aware of the regulations.

If the proposed EPA regulations are approved, for the farm workers who are aware of the regulations and who work for an employer who chooses to comply with them, they will provide several protections, including:

  • Mandatory worker safety trainings every year instead of every five years,
  • A prohibition of pesticide handling by children younger than 16 (with an exemption for family farms),
  • "No-entry" buffer zones around pesticide-treated fields to protect workers from pesticide overspray,
  • OSHA-compliant respirators, and
  • Availability of pesticide label and safety information to workers.

Estimates of the number of migrant agricultural workers vary, but the ban on pesticide handling by children -- if enforced -- would protect between 300,000 migrant workers (GAO estimate) and 800,000 migrant workers (United Farm Workers estimate). For the 1.3 million American citizens who are migrant workers (to use the aforementioned PBS estimate), it is unclear whether even annual training on pesticide safety is sufficient, depending on how and when the training is given. For example, a training session given at a particular farm on the same date every year will not serve any workers who leave the farm before that date or join the farm after that date. Additionally, the EPA has not proposed any specialized regulation of cholinesterase inhibitor pesticides, despite the plentiful documentation of human harm caused by these agents.

Despite the probability that many farm workers will go unprotected even by these proposed regulations, the agricultural industry has been given the opportunity to comment on the regulations, including the "relative benefits to and burdens on employers." It remains to be seen whether the regulations will survive in their proposed versions. All interested parties are directed to comment via the following link:!documentDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OPP-2011-0184-0002.



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