Pesticide Safety

Pesticides are inherently toxic materials -- they are developed and used to destroy or prevent growth or infestations of unwanted insects, plants, and other pests in agricultural, commercial, industrial, and household settings. Farmworkers, and especially those who mix and apply pesticides, face greater risks of becoming poisoned by pesticides because they work with pesticides at their greatest concentrations and strengths.

Pesticide exposure causes farmworkers to suffer more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other workforce in the nation. Workers who mix, load or apply pesticides can be exposed to toxic pesticides due to spills, splashes, defective, missing or inadequate protective equipment, direct spray, or drift. Workers who perform hand labor tasks in areas that have been treated with pesticides face exposure from direct spray, drift or contact with pesticide residues on the crop or soil. Farmworker families can also be injured by pesticides when farmworker children play in treated fields; when workers inadvertently take home pesticide residues on their hair, skin or clothing; or when pesticides drift into residences, schools and other areas located near fields.

Pesticides pose risks of short- and long- term illness to farmworkers and their families. Acute (immediate) health effects of pesticide exposure include rash, eye irritation, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, and headaches. More serious acute effects include difficulty breathing, seizures, loss of consciousness and death. Chronic (long-term) effects can result in cancer, neurological disorders, hormonal and reproductive health problems, birth defects and infertility. Even low levels of pesticide exposure over time can lead to these chronic health effects.

The exact number of workers injured each year by pesticides is unknown, because there is no national surveillance system for acute pesticide illness reporting and no surveillance system for tracking chronic illness related to pesticide exposure. 30 states require health professionals to report suspected pesticide poisoning, but many incidents go unreported due to a number of factors, including workers’ failure to seek medical care, workers seeking medical care in Mexico, medical misdiagnosis, and health provider failure to report. Factors deterring farmworkers and their families from seeking medical care for pesticide illness include lack of health insurance, language barriers, immigration status, cultural factors, lack of transportation, lack of awareness of or exclusion from workers’ compensation benefits, and fear of job loss.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10,000-20,000 farmworkers are poisoned on the job due to pesticide exposure. Several states, e.g., California and Washington State, have state incident reporting systems. In California, in 2009, there were a total of 916 reported cases which were found to be possibly, probably or definitely related to pesticides. Of those 916 cases, 252 (28%) involved agricultural workers. A recent study of acute pesticide poisonings between 1998 and 2005 among agricultural workers in the United States found that an average of 57.6 out of every 100,000 agricultural workers experience acute pesticide poisoning, illness or injury each year. This number excludes the many workers who suffer chronic health problems such as cancer, infertility, and neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, as a result of these toxic exposures.

View Pesticide Safety Resources

Pesticide Regulation (FIFRA)

Due to the human safety and environmental risks of exposure to pesticides, the sale, distribution, and use of pesticides are comprehensively regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (“FIFRA”).

FIFRA requires that pesticides sold or distributed in the United States be “approved” or registered by the EPA. In the registration process, the EPA examines the ingredients of a pesticide; the site or crop on which it is to be used; the amount, frequency and timing of its use; and storage and disposal practices. Under this statute, the EPA can only register a pesticide if it determines that the pesticide, when used in accordance with its label, will not cause unreasonable adverse effects to human health or the environment, taking into account the risks and benefits to the agricultural economy.

To secure an EPA registration, pesticide manufacturers conduct a series of tests on the product's active ingredient to determine its immediate (acute), intermediate (sub chronic) and long term (chronic) effects on the nervous and reproductive systems, as well as the likelihood that it would cause cancer. In addition, the active ingredient is studied for its persistence in soil and water and its effects on non-target fish, birds and other wildlife. The EPA evaluates these data, using a risk assessment and risk management process. Any required mitigation measures (such as personal protective equipment for handlers or restricted entry intervals for harvesters) are stated on the pesticide label, and the failure to follow label requirements constitute a violation of law, which may result in fines (or in rare cases in criminal penalties).

Inclusion of Costs to Farmworker Health in FIFRA Cost-Benefit Analyses

The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) directs EPA to ensure that pesticides will not “cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment,” a phrase that FIFRA defines as, “any unreasonable risk to man or the environment, taking into account the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of the use of any pesticide . . ..” 7 U.S.C. § 136(bb). This standard has been called a risk-benefit test and has often been equated with cost-benefit analysis.

To make unreasonable adverse effects determinations, EPA must consider the relative magnitude of the risks and the benefits. It cannot base its registration decisions on only the risk or benefits side of the equation. Unfortunately, EPA has often failed to take into account the health costs to farmworkers when considering pesticide registration applications, instead focusing solely on the costs to chemical producers and agricultural users. Consider the example of the risk-benefit determination for three dangerous insecticides: azinphos-methyl (AZM), phosmet, and chlorpyrifos. Though the EPA has determined that use of these pesticides causes “risks of concern” to workers, the agency allowed continued use of all three chemicals based on ad hoc information received from growers and chemical producers on the agricultural benefits of the pesticides. The cost assessment was one-sided, quantifying the economic consequences to growers who would be unable to use the pesticides at current levels but failing to account for the costs of the harm to workers, their children, water quality, or endangered species.

EPA must assess not only the agricultural costs that would be incurred without the pesticide in terms of input cost, yield, and quality impacts, but also the social, health, environmental, and community costs and benefits of curtailing pesticide uses. The fact that it might cost growers somewhat more money to control pests in the short run without a pesticide is not a sufficient basis to retain a registration. Rather, EPA must undertake an objective assessment of the costs to workers, their families, communities, and the environment of continued pesticide poisonings and contamination, and the benefits of shifting to less toxic pest control methods. EPA cannot base its FIFRA determinations on a one-sided benefits assessment that accounts for the costs to growers of shifting to alternatives, but not the costs to workers, their communities, or the environment of continued pesticide use.

Worker Protection Standard

The EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS), 40 C.F.R. Part 170, protects agricultural workers from the health risks associated with pesticides. The WPS requires agricultural employers to comply with minimum safety precautions when using pesticides on farms, and in nurseries, greenhouses or forests.

In November 2015, the EPA revised the WPS for the first time in more than 20 years. The changes include important new protections from exposure to pesticides for farmworkers that we hope will result in greater awareness by farmworkers of the risks they face, stronger protections from exposure, and ultimately, fewer pesticide-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths among farmworkers and their family members. The revised WPS establishes a minimum age of 18 for pesticide handlers; increases the frequency of worker safety training from once every five years to every year; improves the content and quality of worker safety trainings; provides new rules on decontamination and personal protective equipment; and improves the quality of information that workers receive about the pesticides that have been applied at their workplace.

Most of the revisions go into effect January 2017. Updated requirements for pesticide safety training go into effect in January 2018. More information about the WPS revisions and how they differ from the current WPS can be found in this issue brief.

Basic Protections of the WPS

The goal of the WPS is to minimize the harmful effects of pesticide exposure to both workers and their families. The law applies both to workers who are involved in the production of crops, and to “handlers,” who mix, load, or apply pesticides. The WPS requires agricultural employers to take the following steps:
-Provide pesticide safety training

  • Employers must provide training on pesticide safety to all workers and handlers who will enter a field treated with pesticides within the past 30 days or a field that has been under a restricted entry interval (or “REI”) within the last 30 days. Beginning in January 2018, an employer must provide this training for their workers annually, and no worker may enter an area where a pesticide has been used without receiving a full safety training.

-Inform workers about where and when pesticides have been applied

  • Employers must inform workers about where and when pesticides were sprayed to avoid accidental exposures.
  • The WPS also requires employers to post information about recent pesticide applications (including name of the pesticide, location of field, applicable REIs, and Safety Data Sheets) in an easily accessible central location.
  • Workers may also designate a representative to obtain this same information on his/her behalf. Some in Congress have recently sought to limit this important right. More information is in this fact sheet.

-Keep workers out of pesticide-treated areas and the immediate surroundings during application and until re-entry into these areas is deemed safe

  • Pesticides must not be applied in a way that will expose workers or other persons. Workers must be excluded from areas while pesticides are being applied and they cannot enter a pesticide treated area during the REI except in limited circumstances.

-Provide and maintain protective equipment for all pesticide handlers and workers coming into contact with pesticides or pesticide-treated areas within the time periods when re-entry is restricted

-Provide facilities for decontamination

  • Handlers and workers must have sufficient water, soap, and towels to wash their hands on a regular basis and to wash themselves in case of an accidental exposure to pesticides

-Facilitate emergency medical treatment if necessary

  • If an agricultural worker becomes ill due to pesticide exposure, the employer must promptly make available transportation (which can include calling an emergency vehicle) to a medical facility. An employer must provide information about the pesticide to which the person may have been exposed to the injured worker or treating medical personnel

Bilingual Pesticide Labels

“Si Usted no entiende la etiqueta, busque a alguien para que se la explique a Usted en detalle. [If you do not understand the label, find someone to explain it to you in detail.]”

According to the National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS), 81% of farmworkers reported Spanish as their native language, and 53% of farmworkers said they cannot speak, read, or write English. Despite the prevalence of the Spanish language in the fields, currently pesticide labels are only required to be printed in English. Spanish-speaking applicators are directed to get the label translated themselves. Pesticide labels communicate important safety information, including warnings and precautionary statements, first aid information, personal protective equipment, directions for safe use, and emergency decontamination instructions. Thousands of pesticide applicators are at risk of injury or illness as a result of not being able to read the pesticide label.

In 2009, Farmworker Justice, Migrant Clinicians Network, and other farmworker groups petitioned the EPA to require pesticide manufacturers to translate their pesticide labels into Spanish. In response to the petition, in 2011 the EPA sought public comments to determine the need for Spanish labels, whether bilingual labels would ensure meaningful access for those with limited English proficiency, and the costs involved in translation and agency oversight. In comments submitted, Farmworker Justice and other advocates urged the EPA to require Spanish translations of essential safety and environmental information on pesticide labels.

Our research and policy analysis on this issue involved extensive interviews with pesticide handlers and applicators, pesticide safety trainers, pesticide safety researchers, and growers. These interviews revealed overwhelming support for translation of essential information on the pesticide label.

EPA’s current approach to communicating label information in Spanish is inadequate to protect workers from the risks of mishandling the pesticide and places a tremendous burden on employers and supervisors. Translation of specific label information can be challenging, even for people who are bilingual. Most growers and supervisors are not sufficiently bilingual to be able to translate all of the important information on the label. According to pesticide safety trainers Farmworker Justice spoke to, supervisors generally explain the required protective equipment and directions for use, but they often do not go through all of the label material, such as symptoms of exposure. Workers need to know what symptoms indicate exposure and when they should seek medical attention. Under the current system, there is no guarantee that all workers and handlers have access to all relevant label information. Furthermore, in the event of an accident, a worker needs to be able to read the first aid instructions immediately, rather than waiting to find someone who can read and provide a reliable translation. Including Spanish translations on the labels would ensure that this information can be quickly and accurately explained by supervisors and accessed by workers who have questions.

EPA’s current labeling system is grossly inadequate and does not promote risk management and occupational safety. Without the benefit of a label in a language they understand, farmworkers are ill-equipped to protect themselves, others, or the environment. Providing the most critical label sections in Spanish would improve farmworkers’ health and prevent environmental contamination by ensuring that all workers have access to this information.

Children & Pesticides

Children’s Exposure to Pesticide Drift

EPA has responsibilities under federal law to “ensure that there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result to infants and children from aggregate exposure” to pesticides, including pesticide drift exposures, and to ensure that its pesticide programs do not have a disproportionate impact on minority and low-income populations.

Unfortunately, EPA has failed to assess children’s exposures to pesticides that drift from agricultural sites to homes, schools, daycares, parks, and other places where children may be exposed. By failing to assess the risk to children who are exposed to agricultural pesticide drift, EPA maintains a double standard that may provide some protections for kids from pesticides used in urban and residential settings, but leaves kids who live near agricultural sites unprotected and vulnerable to pesticide drift. In failing to protect these forgotten children, EPA has violated federal law.

In 2009, Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice petitioned EPA to do more to protect children from pesticide drift.

Greater Protections Needed for Children Employed in Agriculture

Child workers are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure. A 1993 study by the National Research Council concluded that “the toxicity of pesticides can potentially be influenced by the immaturity of biochemical and physiological functions and body composition of developing children and adolescents.” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (“NIOSH”) notes that “[t]here is age-related variation in susceptibility to pesticides, based on different metabolic rates and ability to activate, detoxify and excrete xenobiotic compounds, and both qualitative and quantitative differences in toxicity of pesticides between children and adults.”

A 2003 report on acute pesticide-related illnesses among young workers, using data from state-based surveillance systems and Poison Control Center data from the Toxic Exposure Surveillance System, revealed that 531 children suffered acute occupational pesticide-related illness between the years 1988 and 1999. The median age for these workers was 16 years (range: 6—17 years) and 122 (23%) were 13 years or younger. Seventy percent of the children were employed in agricultural production and services. Of the 81 percent of cases where the EPA acute Toxicity Category was available, 67 percent of the illnesses were associated with Toxicity III pesticides. Because these acute illnesses affect young people at a time before they have reached full developmental maturation, researchers are also concerned about unique and persistent chronic effects.

Several youth characteristics raise special concern about the health and safety of adolescents in the workplace. Young people are generally at increased risk of injury from lack of experience. Inexperienced workers are unfamiliar with the requirements of work, are less likely to be trained to recognize hazards, and are often unaware of their legal rights on the job. Youths are also generally less assertive than adults, making it less likely that they will question duties that put them at risk for pesticide exposure.

U.S. DOL regulations, known as the agricultural “Hazardous Orders” (HOs), provide limited protections for hired farmworker youths with respect to a number of particularly dangerous activities, including handling of pesticides. Currently, the agricultural HOs, which haven’t been updated since 1970, only prohibit farmworker youths from applying or handling Toxic Category I and II pesticides, due to their acute toxicity. Children under 16 can still handle Category III or IV pesticides even though the chronic hazards associated with these chemicals include “potential neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenic effects.”

In September 2011, the US DOL proposed revisions to the agricultural HOs based on recommendations from NIOSH. Among other important changes, these proposed regulations would have prohibited hired farmworkers under age 16 from handling pesticides of any kind.

Farmworker Justice supported the much-needed revisions to the agricultural HOs and submitted comments to that effect.

Shamefully, in April 2012, the Obama Administration withdrew the proposed regulations in response to a selfish, disingenuous campaign by some agribusiness representatives. Despite their duty to ensure that all workers come home safely, the Obama Administration sided with industry instead of with child farmworkers. One of the most outrageous agribusiness claims was that the children of family-farm owners would be prohibited from performing work under their parents’ supervision. The proposed regulation specifically exempted family farms from coverage and would have allowed parents to subject their own children to hazardous tasks; however most farmworker children don’t work for their parents on a family farm.

In fact, farmworker children work alongside their migrant and seasonal farmworker parents. For decades, agricultural exemptions have impacted the working and living conditions of farmworker children. These predominantly Latino children, many younger than the legal working age of twelve, work for 10 to 12 hour days in excruciating weather conditions, in fields regularly treated with pesticides, and with dangerous machinery and tools. In addition to these harsh working conditions, Latino farmworker children also face language and cultural barriers at school. As a result, many farmworker children do not regularly attend classes and fall behind in their studies. The withdrawal of the agricultural HOs will continue the endangerment of Latino children and the discrimination against farmworkers in industrialized agriculture. Read our discussion paper, The Ones the Law Forgot: Children Working in Agriculture.

Farmworkers and Children in Pesticide Risk Assessments: The need for Greater Consideration

  • In October 2011, Farmworker Justice filed comments with the EPA in response to the Agency’s preliminary human health risk assessment for the registration review of the pesticide Chlorpyrifos. We urged EPA to ban the use of chlorpyrifos and, in the interim, to implement mitigating measures to prevent exposure by spray drift, such as buffer zones around areas where sensitive populations frequent.
  • In February 2012, FJ and California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation jointly submitted comments in response to EPA’s cumulative risk assessment for the registration review of pyrethrins/pyrethroids. We urged EPA to consider the hazards of occupational exposure to these chemicals, and opposed EPA’s proposal to reduce the child safety factor for aggregate exposure under the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA).