EPA pesticide proposal stirs controversy among farm groups

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2014 - After twenty years of study, it happened last week: EPA released its proposed Agricultural Worker Protection Standards, which, if approved, will regulate the application of pesticides on much of this country's farmland.

And though agriculture groups say they appreciated the revision's intension - all parties consulted say the current standards need more work to adequately protect farmworkers. Many say there are gaps between EPA's intentions and what its proposal will actually mean on thousands of farms across the country.

“I think the most concerned stakeholders, as I've looked at this, will be farm organizations,” said Jay Vroom, president and CEO of CropLife America, which represents the crop-protection industry. Vroom says farm groups, which have extensively collaborated with EPA on this new version of the standards, were disappointed to see that many of their suggestions did not make the final proposal.

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Regulatory alternatives that were presented by farm organizations and have “the same kind of accomplishment” were not accepted by the agency, Vroom said.

According to EPA, a “sizable proportion” of the agricultural workforce currently may be exposed to pesticides and pesticide residues. Studies show pesticide exposure can lead to long- and short-term health risks, including problems as minor as diarrhea and as debilitating as birth defects. The Agricultural Worker Protection Standards have not been seriously updated since 1992.

So it is little wonder that agriculture groups like CropLife say they seek to decrease workers' pesticide exposure. “The health and safety of America's farmworkers is paramount to the crop protection industry, and we have strived for decades to continuously improve the technology surrounding product formulation and application,” Vroom said in a statement last week.

Still, some in agriculture say they have problems with these revisions.

The changes, as many industry sources have pointed out, are not simple or brief: The proposed standards themselves are a weighty 345 pages. They include requirements for posting of signs in treated areas with restricted entry of over 48 hours; requirements that records of training be kept for two years; and mandatory training would be on an annual basis, instead of every five years, as is the current rule.

Requiring increased recordkeeping could possibly open farmers up to increased liability, said Paul Schlegel, director of environment and energy policy at the American Farm Bureau, who said the group's policy experts were still paging through the regulations. “We don't want (those regulations) to be put in place if they create legal exposure” for farmers, he said. 

According to Vroom, placing signs in treated areas is more time- and work-intensive than it sounds. “Putting them in place, making sure they're moved when they're no longer necessary” - it's a lot of work, Vroom said. “That's the kind of thing that uses a lot of resources.”

He said farm groups would use the comment period to lobby EPA for “some additional flexibility.”

EPA says the changes will save $5 million to $14 million in health care and “loss of productivity” costs for both farm operators and farmworkers, and will cost industry $62 to $73 million per year. As EPA points out, that's not a large dent to the agriculture industry. The agency estimates annual costs to large establishments would be between $340 and $400 per year, while costs to small farms would increase $130 to $150. That's only about $5 per worker and $60 per handler annually.

But those numbers, Vroom said, are skewed. According to the rule, EPA based its costs calculations on reports that show pesticide poisoning is underreported by 25 percent. Though the agency calls that estimate “conservative,” citing literature that estimates incidences could actually be underreported by up to 90 percent, the data is unclear. And if pesticide exposure is not as frequent as EPA alleges, then its cost estimate would actually increase- because there would be fewer benefits.

The problem comes down to something simple, but distressing: As EPA frequently notes in its proposed rule, the agency does not have enough data to know how many agricultural workers are affected by pesticide poisoning.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the latest National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) - conducted by the Department of Labor between 2001 and 2002, more than 10 years ago - shows only 23 percent of farmworkers have health insurance. That means that many who are exposed to pesticides may not seek medical care. The exact number? EPA has to guess.

Additionally, pesticide poisoning is often hard for doctors to identify. Many symptoms, including fatigue, nausea, rash, dizziness and diarrhea, are difficult to distinguish from other sicknesses. Other, more serious illnesses - non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, prostate cancer, Parkinson's disease, lung cancer, bronchitis and asthma - are difficult to trace back to a source like pesticide exposure.

Then there are the workers themselves. The NAWS found 44 percent of agricultural workers in 2001-2002 did not speak English. The average worker had received no more than a sixth grade education. And workers are notoriously difficult to track, because many work seasonally. It all adds up to a seemingly impossible task for EPA - making rules for a population that it doesn't completely understand.

Meanwhile, worker advocacy groups say EPA's exposure estimates are much too low.

Pesticide poisoning rates are “much higher than what's reported,” said Erick Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers of America. “There are [on-farm] systems in place to intimidate and threaten those who report any kind of exposure.”

He called EPA's proposed standards “baby steps in terms of providing protections to farm workers.”

However, Vroom said on-farm conditions are getting better, and fewer workers are being exposed to pesticides than there were 20 years ago.

“Innovation and changes with regard to mechanized harvesting, mechanized pruning mean labor has actually been reduced or eliminated,” he said. “A lot of cropping systems have been changed.”

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