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EPA Proposes Stronger Pesticide Rules to Protect Workers

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules on Thursday to protect farm workers, including mandatory training in languages such as Spanish and buffer zones to keep people clear of freshly sprayed fields.

They’re the first new regulations covering pesticides and farm workers in more than 20 years and aim to start bringing protections up to the level of other U.S. workers.

“The current rules require training every five years," said Jim Jones of EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. "We are proposing training on an annual basis."

Training would include telling workers not only how to protect themselves, by wearing respirators, for instance, but also how to protect their families by changing clothes.

Current rules also make warning signs optional. The revised rules would make no-entry signs mandatory for areas where the most dangerous chemicals have been applied. Farm operators don’t have to keep records now on which pesticides are used and when, but the new rules will require it. And, for the first time, no one younger than 16 will be able to use pesticides, with the exception of those on family farms.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 farm workers suffer from acute pesticide poisoning every year, and that’s almost certainly an underestimate, said Amy Liebman of the Migrant Clinicians Network. Short-term effects include blisters and breathing problems, while documented long-term effects include cancer, birth defects, ADHD and Parkinson’s disease.

Liebman praised the new rules but said her group would like to see more changes, including mandatory medical monitoring for workers who use pesticides and regulations to ensure that decontamination supplies are more readily available.

“They are specifically excluded from most of the regulations that protect other workers in this country,” Liebman said on a conference call.

EPA says farmers spend more than $4 billion a year on pesticides. The new rules, which dozens of members of Congress have been pushing for, will be final after a 90-day public comment period.