Comment period open on proposed changes
While pesticides can help farmers raise lusher Christmas trees and juicier tomatoes, they can also be a threat to thousands of farmworkers in Western North Carolina who plant and harvest crops on farmland throughout the mountains.
Those risks are the focus of a set of proposed changes to federal rules governing pesticide use on farms. They are the first pesticide rule changes in more than 20 years.
“This is a big deal. These are the only workplace safety rules for pesticides,” said Fawn Pattison of Toxic Free NC, a nonprofit organization that is fighting pesticide pollution in North Carolina. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime shot at making the workplace safer.”
The proposed changes, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a blog post, could impact 2 million farm workers nationwide, many of whom are migrant workers. According to 2013 estimates from the N.C. Department of Commerce, more than 11,000 migrant farmworkers work in the 18 westernmost counties of North Carolina.
In Western North Carolina, migrant farmhands work in the vegetable and fruit fields, nurseries and in the Christmas tree industry. North Carolina is ranked second in tree production nationwide, with Avery County coming in at the third-largest producer in the state, behind Ashe and Alleghany counties. The county posted more than $10.5 million in tree sales in 2009, according the state’s most recent census of horticulture. In 2013, there were 1,662 migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Avery County.
Pattison, of Toxic Free NC, said that the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard for agricultural pesticides, published in 1992, aimed to reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning and injury among agricultural workers.
But, she said, the rules are difficult to enforce and have been ineffective at preventing illnesses related to pesticide use. The proposed changes to federal rules address some of the organization’s safety concerns, including better education, stronger state oversight and improved record keeping.
Patrick Jones, the state’s deputy director of pesticide programs with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the North Carolina Pesticide Board adopted the Federal Worker Protection Standard in July 1993. It adopted more stringent regulations about pesticide record keeping in May 2009 — including recording the specific time of day when an application ended and maintaining the pesticide application information for two years. The field operation unit of the pesticide section oversees all mandated pesticide programs in the state, including inspections and investigations.
“Both of these ‘NC revisions’ are included in the proposed changes,” he said in an email to Carolina Public Press. “After proper approval, all revisions to the Worker Protection Standard will automatically be adopted by reference in North Carolina. Members of our staff have begun reviewing the proposed changes and will prepare comments to be submitted for EPA’s consideration.”
The proposed changes to the rules come at the urging of 52 members of the U.S. Congress, including U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat representing the 4th District of North Carolina, who sent a letter to EPA Administrator McCarthy arguing that current regulations are not effective in preventing farmworkers’ exposure to chemicals.
Among the suggested rule changes are increased mandatory trainings, improving states’ ability to enforce compliance to pesticide use rules, expanded posting of no-entry signs to fields with pesticide use, improving training to reduce take-home pesticide exposure and making respirator use consistent with OSHA standards.
Jennifer Greene, the executive director of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, said in an email to Carolina Public Press that her organization is in agreement with the proposal since it does not add any additional responsibilities or costs to what growers are already doing.
Pesticides and worker health
The NC Cooperative Extension Service said on its website that insecticides and miticides are used to control pests that can cause cosmetic damage to Christmas trees and other crops and may decrease their value. The website said that while links between the use of pesticides and health problems are not clear, they advise reducing exposure.
According to the EPA, an estimated 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States. Pesticides injure approximately 10,000-20,000 farm workers and their families a year, it said, ranging from short-term effects including skin and eye injuries, nausea, headaches and respiratory problems to an increased risk of chronic health problems such as cancer, birth defects, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease.
Silvia Peterson, the coordinator of the Toe River Health District farmworker health program, said that rashes and respiratory illnesses are common among migrant workers in their service area, which includes McDowell, Yancey, Mitchell and Madison counties.
“Many of the migrant farm workers are unaware of the impact of pesticides,” she said. “They are in a new country and they don’t know anything about pesticides. We are trying to educate them to wash hands, change clothes, to have a shower before you hug your children.”
Peterson also encourages workers to wear respirators rather than rely on bandanas, which are ineffective at keeping pesticides from the respiratory system. Last year, she said, her program provided pesticide training to 297 workers.
Peterson said that farmers often work with a contractor to bring seasonal workers from Central America on H-2A temporary worker visas. The H-2A program gives U.S. employers or agents the ability to bring foreign nationals into the country to fill temporary jobs in agriculture. Currently, EPA rules require that the agricultural employer train farmworkers in pesticide use at least once every five years.
That may not always be the case, Peterson said.
“It is the responsibility of the contractor to provide the education,” she said, “but if the farmer doesn’t ask, he’s assuming the contractor has done the training, but often they haven’t.”
She also said that while some workers choose not to take safety precautions, some farmers fail to provide adequate safety equipment.
The EPA is accepting comments on the proposed changes during a 90-day comment period that began on February 20. Changes to the rules do not need congressional approval since the EPA has authority to make changes to pesticide distribution, sale and use under two federal statutes — the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
The EPA estimates that the additional cost as a result of the rule changes for a typical farmworker will increase by $5 per year and the additional cost of a skilled pesticide handler will increase by $60 per year.