Farmworkers Unite to Demand Protections from Pesticides
Farmworkers from across the nation are meeting with their members of Congress today to call for stronger protections for farmworkers from hazardous pesticides. These simple, straightforward and commonsense protections have not been updated for more than 20 years. In February 2013, Beyond Pesticides joined with a coalition of environmental and farmworker organizations to submit a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), urging the agency implement these long overdue revisions to the Worker Protection Standard (WPS) of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, also known as FIFRA. An estimated 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the U.S., and farmworkers face the greatest threat from these chemicals than any other sector of society, with thousands of farmworkers each year experiencing pesticide poisoning.
The nation’s 1-2 million farmworkers form the backbone of the U.S. agricultural economy and many are regularly exposed to pesticides. An average of 57.6 out of every 100,000 agricultural workers experience acute pesticide poisoning, illness or injury each year, the same order of magnitude as the annual incidence rate of breast cancer in the U.S. The federal government estimates that there are 10,000-20,000 acute pesticide poisonings among workers in the agricultural industry annually, a figure that likely understates the actual number of acute poisonings since many affected farmworkers may not seek care from a physician. As a result of cumulative long-term exposures, they and their children, who often times also work on the farm or live nearby, are at risk of developing serious chronic health problems such as cancer, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease. Children, according to a recent American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report, face even greater health risks compared to adults when exposed to pesticides.
Underscoring the urgent need for these reforms, Farmworker Justice released a new report yesterday, entitled Exposed and Ignored, How Pesticides are Endangering Our Nation’s Farmworkers. In testimony on Capitol Hill, Occupational and Environmental Health Director of Farmworker Justice Virginia Ruiz painted a grim picture of the conditions farmworkers and their families face.
"The close proximity of agricultural fields to residential areas and schools makes it nearly impossible for farmworkers and their families to escape exposure because pesticides are in the air they breathe and the food they eat, and the soil where they work and play,” stated Ruiz. She also noted the heartbreaking point that, in order to minimize exposure, farmworkers are told not to hug their children when they come home from work—they must first remove their clothes, and take a shower.
Most workers in the U.S. look to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for standards to protect them from exposure to hazardous chemicals. However, farmworkers are not eligible for protection under these rules. Protection for farmworkers from pesticides is left to the EPA’s authority under the WPS, a standard that is far more lenient than OSHA rules and is fundamentally inadequate.
The farmworkers and advocates are calling for these following changes to the WPS of FIFRA:
- Provide more frequent and more comprehensible pesticide safety training for farmworkers.
- Include information about farmworker families’ exposures to pesticides in the required training materials.
- Ensure that workers receive information about specific pesticides used in their work.
- Require safety precautions and protective equipment limiting farmworkers’ contact with pesticides.
- Require medical monitoring of workers who handle neurotoxic pesticides.
Despite the straightforward and commonsense nature of these new protections, environmental and farmworker groups have grown increasingly concerned over the possible changes to WPS. After a 2010 EPA document proposed WPS that would determine ways to increase training, improve safety requirements, provide clear emergency information and create strong protection for applicators, the agency abruptly changed course. A handout distributed at the 2012 Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee meeting downplayed the details within those goals, bringing into question the agency’s previous commitments. Advocacy groups are disturbed by EPA’s mercurial attitude towards farmworker protection, and fearful that there will be further delays in releasing WPS. The farmworkers meeting on Capitol Hill this week hope to spur lawmakers to call on EPA to implement these long-overdue standards, and provide funding for much needed national farmworker studies in order to accurately account for the hazardous effects of pesticides on farmworker health.
In testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday, Ed Zuroweste, MD, chief medical officer at the Migrant Clinicians Network, summarized the importance of this issue, stating, “Prevention is key. In a perfect world the elimination of dangerous pesticides would guarantee that workers would not get poisoned. Until we reach that ‘perfect world’ we should strive to substitute and use less toxic chemicals. We shouldn’t lose track that this should always be our ultimate goal. But since we are still far away from this perfect world, we need to emphasize other ways to keep the worker safe.”
In the absence of widespread adoption of organic practices, worker protections for farmworkers must be strengthened. Consumers can do their part and help encourage the protection of the people who help put food on our table every day by purchasing organic. By buying organic, you support an agricultural system that does not heavily rely on the widespread application of dangerous pesticides. Beyond Pesticides recently updated the Eating with a Conscience database to reflect the risk conventional produce poses to farmworker health.
Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH page for more related news on this topic.
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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