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Advocates: EPA Falls Short on Protecting Workers From Pesticides

<p>Requirements on making pesticide information available to farmworkers is removed under proposed Obama administration rules</p>
Image: Colorado Farm Suffers As Immigrant Workforce Diminishes
Mexican migrant workers harvest organic parsley at Grant Family Farms on October 11, 2011 in Wellington, Colorado. Unlike this one, farms that use pesticides are a source of worry to advocates who say there is a lack of readily available information on the chemicals. John Moore / Getty Images

The Obama administration removed a requirement to make information about pesticides anonymously available to laborers when it proposed an update to farmworker protection regulations, advocates said Friday.

Pressured by members of Congress, the Obama administration released the proposed changes to the rules written in 1992 to protect agricultural workers.

Latino farmworkers, most in the country illegally, are most likely to be impacted by the proposed changes that were released Thursday.

“Highly disappointing,” Erick Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers, said of the proposed changes released by the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees farmworker protections.

Current law requires information on pesticides be posted in a central location so workers can view the information anonymously. But the proposed rules remove that requirement, Nicholson said. Because many of the workers are in the country illegally, a fact well known by government officials and the agriculture industry, few are going to approach management for information about the chemicals, he said.

“The sad thing is my organization has been around for 52 years and we are largely in the same place. All we are asking for is for this agency to ensure that workers do not get poisoned in their place of employment and we are still not there yet,” Nicholson said.

An estimated 10 to 20 thousand farmworkers are injured by pesticides on the job in the U.S. each year, according to Farmworker Justice, an immigration group. Exposures can lead to immediate problems of rashes and skin and eye injuries, to longer-term problems such as cancer, neurological damage and at the worst, death, the group said.

Farmworkers’ pesticide exposure is believed to be underreported and the updates are intended to improve enforcement of the regulations, Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator, said in an interview with

“We’ve been working on this for a while and it is a significant issue. We’ve tackled something we haven’t tackled in decades,” McCarthy said.

Because the rules are still a proposal, comments by the public can be used to reshape them.

Protecting farmworkers from such on-the-job injuries, including pesticide poisoning was a key goal of Cesar Chavez, the civil rights leader who helped found the UFW. He is the subject of a soon-to-be released film.

Democratic Reps. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, and Linda Sánchez of California, sent a letter signed by 50 additional lawmakers urging McCarthy to issue the proposed regulations.

In the letter, the lawmakers cited a decade-old statement by the EPA saying that even when there is full compliance with the agriculture worker protection standards “risks to workers still exceed EPA’s level of concern.”

“There is no reason agriculture employers can’t properly inform their workers of the risks they face,” Grijalva said in a statement.

McCarthy said the rules include an age limit of 16 for workers handling pesticides. Though some advocates would like to see the age higher, the rules, if adopted, would establish an age limit for the first time, McCarthy said.

“We are trying to take action on issues that have been contentious for years and get them on the table again and start tackling them one by one,” she said.