A New Crop of Concerns

By Taylor, David A. | Environmental Health Perspectives, September 2000 | Go to article overview

A New Crop of Concerns


Taylor, David A., Environmental Health Perspectives


Congress Investigates Pesticide Safety

A March 2000 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) titled Pesticides: Improvements Needed to Ensure the Safety of Farmworkers and their Children concludes that farmworkers may not be adequately protected against the risk of pesticide poisoning, despite existing legislation to offer such protection. The report also marks a step toward clarifying questions around the issue of research needed on children's exposure to pesticides.

In issuing the report, the GAO completed an analysis requested in 1998 by Representatives Tom Lantos (D-California), Henry Waxman (D-California), and Bernard Sanders (I-Vermont), long-time proponents of farmworker safety. The report comes at a time when questions about children's vulnerability to pesticide-related health risks are mounting in response to President Bill Clinton's 1997 executive order charging federal agencies to give high priority to addressing environmental health and safety risks to children. In addition, occupational health concerns have turned once again to the estimated 2.5 million farmworkers employed in U.S. agriculture.

The Story behind the Report

For some scientists, the GAO analysis comes as a wake-up call. "To think that in the year 2000--eight years after promulgation of the Worker Protection Standard [WPS] and five years after its implementation--the idea that there's no clear system for implementing these rules is very disappointing," says Richard Fenske, deputy director of the Center for Child Environmental Health Risks Research at the University of Washington in Seattle, commenting on the report. (Fenske has conducted numerous studies on the effects of pesticides on children.) The WPS, promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1992, is a regulation aimed at reducing the risk of pesticide illnesses and injuries among farmworkers and pesticide handlers. The standard stipulates better information for workers and inspections to work sites to ensure that facilities use protective clothing, equipment, and practices. Two key elements of the standard involve training workers in pesticide safety and compliance with the restricted entry interval--the minimum time between pesticide application and the point when workers may reenter treated areas.

In 1996, the death rate among agricultural workers nationwide from all job-related causes was more than five times the average for all industries (an estimated 20.9 per 100,000 agricultural workers versus 3.9 per 100,000 in all other industries), according to the report Accident Facts 1996 by the private National Safety Council, an international public service organization. The council reports that agricultural workers are subject to longer hours and more direct physical and chemical risks--for example, by working directly with heavy equipment and pesticides--than many other workers.

Agriculture is also the only sector of the U.S. economy in which children as young as 12 years old can work legally. This exception stems from the historic role of family farming in America; U.S. farms are often small family enterprises, and by helping with farm chores, children make important contributions to the farms' viability. But amid growing concerns about child labor internationally, it may be time to reexamine that exception, according to Fenske. "People are asking, `Why is agriculture the great exception, when we know it can be a hazardous occupation?'" he says.

The Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996 marked a major change in how pesticides are regulated. It recognized that pesticides can have combined effects distinct from the health effects of each chemical in isolation, and it required assessment of that combined exposure for health risks. The FQPA also recognized that children may react to pesticides differently than adults do, and suggested a wider safety margin--generally up to 10 times wider--for children. …

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