The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) at Vermont Law and Graduate School recently launched a report as part of its Food System Worker Law and Policy Project. The policy analysis reveals how legal protections fail to adequately safeguard workers from the harmful effects of pesticides.
This report is the companion study to another report by CAFS, published in 2021. While the first study analyzed the limited protections in place for farmworkers, the newest report scrutinizes the enforcement of those protections that do exist. It builds on the initial findings of the first report by looking more closely at the application of laws aimed at mitigating pesticide exposure.
The primary law governing pesticide use in the U.S. is the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). FIFRA requires pre-market approval of pesticides by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure the chemicals do not pose “unreasonable” risks to people.
But “EPA-approved pesticides are constantly being used in a way that is dangerous to people,” lead author Olivia Guarna tells Food Tank. This misuse usually occurs due to poor management of the type of pesticide used, the dosage, the duration of exposure, and the protective gear worn. Additionally, since many farmworkers’ first language is not English, the failure to translate pesticide labels “puts them at a stark disadvantage in being able to learn the details of safe pesticide use.”
To administer FIFRA, the EPA has implemented the Worker Protection Standard (WPS), which establishes the agency’s primary authority over pesticide use in the workplace.
“It’s somewhat unique that EPA has this responsibility because the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is the primary federal agency in charge of ensuring worker safety generally,” Guarna tells Food Tank. According to the report, OSHA inspectors are trained in “hazard identification and exposure assessment.” Yet, “OSHA has barely any role in regulating pesticide safety in the workplace,” says Guarna.
The report also highlights that the EPA delegates most of its enforcement authority to the states. Consequently, the agency rarely conducts inspections itself. And it lacks inspection data and other critical information on state regulatory activities. Therefore, the agency cannot really ensure that states adhere to federal guidelines.
“An accurate picture of state activities is critical for EPA to understand how a state program is performing,” Guarna tells Food Tank. “Without this information, how can EPA really know whether a state is in compliance?”
As the report reveals, many states are not in compliance. In the 13 states analyzed in the study, the authors write that inspections are “infrequent” and “substandard.” When they are conducted, violation rates are staggering: in 2019 the average WPS violation rate was 56 percent nationally. Penalties are frequently dismissed and “disproportionately low,” when imposed, the report asserts.
Ultimately “states have too much latitude in implementing and enforcing FIFRA and the WPS,” specifically when it comes to “deciding how and how often to inspect fields and facilities and respond to violations,” Guarna explains.
Inconsistencies in state funding, selection, and oversight of programs to reduce pesticide risks leads to further challenges. According to the report, California has an agency entirely dedicated to pesticide regulation, and in fiscal year 2019-2020 spent US$100 million to address problems with the chemicals. In contrast, Illinois, a state with a similar amount of farmland acreage, has only dedicated US$7 million to its pesticide programs.
Different reporting requirements also means that some governments lack access to critical details of pesticide exposure, which impacts the medical treatment prescribed to workers.
“The effect of these inconsistencies is that workers may receive dramatically different protection from pesticides just based on what state they land in,” Guarna tells Food Tank.
The report underscores the implications of lax federal and state regulatory enforcement. Acute symptoms of pesticide exposure include skin irritation, fatigue, or nausea and vomiting. Pesticides are also linked to a range of chronic ailments, including various types of cancer, neurological impairment, reproductive issues, as well as long-term health and developmental effects in children.
On one company’s tomato fields, three pregnant women who were overexposed to pesticides had children with severe birth anomalies, such as missing limbs. Despite North Carolina’s discovery of the illegal use of pesticides on the farm, the company paid a relatively small fine.
And because many workers are undocumented or have a H-2A temporary visa, speaking up means risking “retaliatory deportation or blacklisting,” Guarna explains. “As a result, farmworkers stay quiet and growers and applicators continue misusing pesticides without any consequences.”
The report proposes many changes to reduce these barriers to worker safety. “At a minimum,” Guarna says, more coordination between the EPA and OSHA to enforce protections is necessary.
Guarna also believes amending FIFRA so that the EPA can more readily bring states into compliance is essential. Since FIFRA drives all pesticide law enforcement, it could create a more robust system of inspections, investigations, reporting, violation response, and penalties. Modifications to this one law, Guarna notes, “could lead to structural changes in the regulatory enforcement system.”
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Photo courtesy of Tim Mossholder, Unsplash