Farmworker advocates expect more of EPA pesticide standards

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Farmworker advocates expect more of EPA pesticide standards

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed revisions to the Worker Protection Standard for the first time in over 20 years last week.pesticide

The new standards would seek to improve worker training on pesticide usage, increase singage on farms and restrict chemical exposure to youth under the age of 16.

In conversation with, Farmworker Justice's Virginia Ruiz spoke about improvements to the 1992 policy and what else remains to be done to protect worker health.

"The regulations in place for the past 20 years, in our opinion, provide bare minimum protection for workers and their families. Currently workers just aren't getting adequate information about the pesticides that they are exposed to, how they can protect themselves and their rights and responsibilities in protecting themselves and their families," said Ruiz, who is the group's director of occupational and environmental health.

"For the new regulations, we are hoping that they will move forward in that direction in terms of providing more information and better protection for workers."

Under current regulations, pesticide trainings are only required every five years. The proposed rules would implement annual trainings.

"They will include a little bit more information now about how to mitigate exposure not only to the workers but also to their families. Workers who are exposed to pesticides at work often will take the residues that are left on their skin, clothing and shoes back home and their families can be inadvertently exposed," she said.

"One new requirement of the training is to include information on those second-hand exposures and how to decrease them or how to avoid them. I think they will also receive more information about their right to ask for medical treatment if they are feeling any adverse effects from pesticides and where to go for that medical care."

Other information provided will include increased postings in fields to warn of chemical exposure and improved directions on how to wear respirators during applications. Ruiz, however, said more information should be provided.

"I think they could go further. They don’t provide as much protection as they could. Based on the proposal, there will be some improvements on the frequency and content of the training.  But I think workers will still be exposed, especially those most directly in contact, like the handlers and the applicators," she said.

Ruiz cited pesticide policy in California and Washington as an example of standards that could be implemented on a national level.

"In two of the largest agricultural states, Washington and California, currently there is medical monitoring of applicators who apply more toxic pesticides. It’s a program that is not only feasible but provides a lot of protection to workers and a lot of good information about how workers are exposed. I’m disappointed that that is something the EPA decided not to include in the proposed revisions," she said.

By taking worker blood samples, Ruiz said the model in California and Washington provides real-time information on exposure levels.

"The workers are monitored to see if certain enzymes have decreased before and after. They do a baseline of their blood and after they’ve had contact with pesticides, they check to see if there is a difference in their enzyme levels. That gives you an immediate reading of whether or not the protections they have are adequate," Ruiz said.

"In many cases they are, but those kinds of programs are able to detect and prevent further harm. It also gives you information about what are the best practices for preventing exposure to avoid harming their employees."

In general, Ruiz said she would like to greater availability to information for workers.

"I would like to see workers receive more specific information about the pesticides they are working around. One of the ways for workers to be better protected is for them to have better information. I think currently a lot of workers don’t really appreciate some of the hazards they are exposed to and don’t understand how to reduce those exposures," she said.

Related story: U.S.: EPA proposes new pesticide rules

Photo: Pesticide application on leaf lettuce in Yuma, Az., USDA

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