From PalmBeachPost.com, John Lantigua, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, 6 Dec 2011.
Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida recalls a woman who walked into her office recently.
“Her face was swollen and her eyes were almost shut,” says Economos, who is based in the Central Florida farm town of Apopka. “She works in a nursery and she’d been affected by pesticides.”
Economos said the woman – a Mexican immigrant who is now a legal U.S. resident – first said she would complain to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services but later changed her mind.
“With the economic crisis, the shortage of jobs, people are more afraid than ever to come forward,” Economos said. “They are afraid of losing their jobs. People feel all the growers know each other. They will be banned as troublemakers or be turned over to immigration. Even people who are legal, like this woman, are afraid.”
Economos and other farmworker advocates have long pegged Florida as one of the most dangerous places for field laborers. They cite extensive use of pesticides in Florida’s tropical environment and lax enforcement of federal pesticide regulations.
Now they have turned to the Obama administration for help.
Economos’ organization has joined several other U.S. advocacy groups in writing an open letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, urging her to expand federal worker protection standards for agricultural labor.
The advocates have been working toward that goal for years. They feel the Obama administration, which has pledged to review those standards and publish proposed changes by May, will give them their best chance at success.
“The general understanding is, we better get something done during the Obama administration rather than after, because we don’t know what will come next,” said Margaret Reeves, senior scientist for the San Francisco-based Pesticide Action Network North America.
The issue of pesticide poisoning has roiled South Florida in recent years. In late 2002 and early 2003, within six weeks of each other, three children were born with serious birth defects in the farm town of Immokalee.
The Palm Beach Post reported that the parents said they had been exposed to freshly sprayed pesticides. Ag-Mart, a Plant City company that employed the parents, eventually settled out of court with parents whose child was born with no limbs. Experts said the sealed settlement was likely for millions of dollars.
Although no such dramatic cases have been reported since, farmworker advocates say pesticide use is still a danger to laborers, especially in Florida. The chemicals often cause no noticeable immediate injury but present serious long-term dangers, not only to farmworkers but to the children they bear.
“Florida is really bad,” Reeves said, adding that the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services “does a pitiful job of enforcing the laws. Basically you have the fox guarding the henhouse.”
The letter to the EPA’s Jackson says improving the work standards would simply give farmworkers the kinds of protections other U.S. workers enjoy.
“Farmworkers, the overwhelming majority of whom are Latino and poor receive far weaker workplace protections than workers in better paid and predominantly white industrial sectors,” the letter says.
The advocates’ proposed standards address issues such as training, pesticide labeling, inspection, equipment and reporting of violations.
“These recommendations are quite feasible and are already being implemented in California and Washington state,” said Virginia Ruiz of Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group in Washington .
The letter says pesticide victims often don’t report injuries, but on average 58 workers of every 100,000 suffer acute pesticide poisoning 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,” the letter says.
Members of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, the state’s largest group of growers, would almost certainly face higher costs, but the organization declined to comment on the demands made in the letter.
“We’re choosing to wait and see what EPA actually proposes, and we will submit comments on those proposed revisions,” spokeswoman Lisa Lochridge said.
Sterling Ivey, spokesman for the state Agriculture Department, disputed the attacks on Florida’s inspection record.
“Florida’s pesticide inspectors are proactive in visiting farms who have more labor-intensive crops such as tomatoes and corn,” Ivey said, “and when violations of federal pesticide regulations are found, we take action.”
In the past fiscal year, the department conducted more than 750 inspections that resulted in fines, advisory letters, warnings and referrals to the EPA for action, he said.
“Florida supports changes that will establish a uniform set of pesticide rules for every state to follow,” Ivey said.
National farmworker advocates are pushing for these changes in pesticide protection standards:
- Greater training in pesticide use for field workers.
- More information given to workers about pesticides used in their work environment, including how soon after a pesticide is sprayed it is safe to re-enter a field.
- Buffer zones around fields being sprayed.
- Facilities for workers to change and shower so they don’t bring dangerous pesticides home with them.
- Labels on pesticides to indicate when a respirator should be used during application.
- Inspections of pesticide use by state inspectors without notice.
- Special protections for young workers and pregnant women.
- Safety equipment for mixing, loading and spreading hazardous pesticides.
- Regular medical monitoring for workers who mix and apply hazardous pesticides.
- Creation of a confidential system for reporting violations.
Sources: Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice