Farmworkers Face Highest Risk of Pesticide Poisonings, EPA Worker Protection Standards Failing


(Beyond Pesticides, December 8, 2008)

A new study by a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) researcher finds the pesticide poisoning incidence rate among U.S. agricultural workers is thirty-nine times higher than the incidence rate found in all other industries combined. The study, “Acute Pesticide Poisoning Among Agricultural Workers in the United Sates, 1998-2005,” published in the December issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, is believed to be the first detailed multi-state assessment of acute pesticide poisonings among agricultural workers.

From 1998 to 2005, a total of 3,271 cases of acute occupational pesticide-related illness/injury among agricultural workers were identified in ten states. According to EPA, the Worker Protection Standards are designed to reduce the risk of injury or illness to agricultural field workers resulting from exposure to pesticides. Although the WPS was expanded in 1995 and in 2005 EPA developed a new WPS How to Comply (HTC) Manual, the NIOSH findings indicate that agricultural workers continue to have an elevated risk for acute pesticide poisoning. Furthermore, female agricultural workers experienced nearly twice the risk of pesticide poisoning of male agricultural workers. The most common factors that contributed to pesticide exposure included off-target drift, early reentry into a treated area, and use in conflict with the pesticide label. The study concludes that “[T]he rates provided should be considered low estimates of the magnitude of acute pesticide poisoning among agricultural workers.”

According to the lead author of the report, Geoffrey Calvert, MD, MPH, “The NIOSH findings reinforce the need for heightened efforts to better protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure. EPA is currently in the process of revising the Worker Protection Standard. The findings in this paper can help inform EPA about the most problematic risk factors that need to be targeted by the WPS.”

The study findings show that more than half of the pesticide poisoning incidents are attributed to insecticides, either by themselves or in combination with other pesticides) and just barely over half of incidents involved exposure to the most toxic category of pesticides by EPA, Toxicity Category I.

The 17 pesticides most commonly implicated in the study data include: sulfur, metam-sodium, glyphosate, chlorpyrifos, sodium hypochlorite, methamidophos, abamectin, imidacloprid, methomyl, myclobutanil, propargite, spinosad, methyl bromide, dimethoate, malathion, and diazinon

The data was pooled from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and NIOSH’s Sentinel Event Notification System for Occupational Risks-Pesticides (SENSOR-Pesticides) program, which collects information from ten state health departments. According to the study, 87 percent of poisoning incidents were of low severity illness, 12 percent were of medium severity, less than one percent was of high severity and one case was fatal. The criteria for each definition are stated in the study: “Low severity illness/ injury consist of illnesses and injuries that generally resolve without treatment and where minimal time (5 days), and may result in permanent impairment or disability.”

This past summer, Beyond Pesticides reported that EPA, which has long been criticized for its abysmal record of instituting and enforcing even the most basic human health protections from pesticides for those who are responsible for planting and harvesting much of the nation’s food, announced that, “Through recent settlements with four Puerto Rico farms, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is sending a message to farm owners that protecting their workers must be their first priority.” On January 19, 2007, EPA assessed the second highest penalty for violating worker protection provisions of U.S. pesticide laws to an agricultural company based in Puerto Rico. According to the EPA, Martex Farms has been ordered to pay a total penalty of $92,620 by EPA’s Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).

Earlier this year, a coalition of farmworker, public health, and environmental groups filed several lawsuits challenging EPA’s decision to allow continued use of the toxic pesticides such as methidathion, oxydemeton-methyl, methamidophos, and ethoprop, diazinon, and endosulfan. “The lack of action [sic] is yet another example of EPA’s failure to fully consider the risks to farmworkers, children, and the environment from pesticides,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.