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Holding the Government Accountable

Pesticide Protections for Farmworkers Vary Wildly Across States

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Known as “the salad bowl of the world,” the Salinas Valley is one of the most verdant and productive regions in California, selling more agricultural products than any other state in the nation. It’s also a major producer of strawberries, which spend their early days covered with tarps that trap fumigants in the soil to prevent insects from devouring them. The fumigants used on strawberries are some of the most toxic chemicals used in agriculture, capable of burning eyes, stinging skin, and turning stomachs of people exposed to them.

That’s what happened on October 5, 2005, when workers at a berry farm in Salinas flushed chloropicrin—a powerful fumigant originally developed for use as tear gas in World War I—into 13 acres of soil. Malfunctioning valves in the irrigation system allowed the chloropicrin to spread into neighboring communities, causing 336 people to suffer symptoms of pesticide poisoning.

For the workers applying the pesticide, however, the experience was part of the job. Farm employees by a state investigator said they smelled the chemical’s sweet odor during application and felt their eyes burn, but because the same thing happened during earlier fumigations, “no one complained because it was normal.”

California has some of the strongest agricultural worker protections in the country, in many cases stronger than those in the Environmental Protection Agency’s contentious Worker Protection Standard and Certification of Pesticide Applicators rules. The fact that such incidents persist shows how basic and necessary these protections are, advocates say.

“California may be strongest with the rights it affords farmworkers in terms of protections, but it fails in how farmworkers avail of themselves of those rights,” said Aaron Voit, a fellow with the nonprofit organization California Rural Legal Assistance, in an interview with POGO. “When the labor force is largely undocumented and made up of people of color, it presents bigger challenges in terms of farmworkers availing themselves of their rights,” he said.

Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), states have primary responsibility for certifying the people who apply the pesticides and employers have primary responsibility for implementing the worker protections. EPA gives states money for training and other enforcement tasks through Pesticide Program Implementation Grants—grants that the Trump Administration’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposed to cut by 30 percent (Congress rejected the cuts in its final spending bill).

Salinas pesticide warning poster
A poster warning about danger from pesticides at a strawberry field in Salinas, California.

States vary in which elements of the Worker Protection Standard and the certification rule they’ve adopted in their own regulations. For example, 26 states require workers applying pesticides to undergo additional testing on how to apply fumigants in the soil, while others keep to the minimum required by FIFRA. Thirty-one states require commercial pesticide applicators be at least 18 years old, and another 16 states mandate a minimum age of 16.

States also diverge widely on the amount of information regarding pesticide use they ask farmers and companies to report. On one end of the spectrum, California implemented a system in the 1990s requiring growers to report the name, quantity, location, and date of pesticides used. On the other end, 20 states have optional or no pesticide use reporting.

Revisions to the Worker Protection Standard and certification rule approved in 2016 would give states three years to come into compliance with them. Under the revisions to the Certification of Pesticide Applicators, states have until March 2020 to submit an updated implementation plan, and another two years to negotiate with EPA before its final approval.

EPA says standardizing the rules will allow workers to work in different states more easily and make it easier for growers and state agencies to use training materials.