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Farmworkers Unite to Demand Protections from Pesticides

Health + Wellness

Beyond 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.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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