The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has delayed a safety rule meant to ensure that pesticides linked to human health problems are applied safely by adult agricultural workers. The proposed delay comes days after a pesticide poisoning incident in California left 50 farmworkers sick.
The Certification of Pesticide Applicators safety rule — which the EPA on Monday proposed delaying until May 2018 — would in part make sure workers have to be at least 18 years old to apply restricted-use pesticides such as atrazine and chlorpyrifos for agricultural use. The rule would also enforce other protections for workers applying pesticides out in the field.
The EPA gave the public less than a week to provide comment on the proposed delay, a time period that falls short of the customary 30 days federal agencies usually extend for open comment periods, Colin O’Neil, the agriculture policy director at Environmental Working Group, told ThinkProgress.
“In general, federal agencies normally hold open comment periods ranging from 30 to 60 days and in certain circumstances, when the issue is complex or the rule-making is complex, they extend it up to 180 days,” O’Neil said. “It’s nearly unheard of, and very unprecedented, for agencies to have such short public comment periods.”
O’Neil was also worried the shortened comment period could set a precedent for future public comment solicitations. “This has an alarming tone for how the EPA under the Trump administration plans to solicit public comments and shows how the brazen disregard for the public’s input on issues important to parents, families, and kids’ health,” he said.
The EPA justified the move, saying that “the agency has determined that a full 30-day comment period is impracticable, unnecessary and contrary to the public interest.”
Atrazine, the second most commonly applied pesticide in the United States, mainly used on corn, is a hormone disruptor. Exposure to the pesticide has been linked to decreased fetal development and increased risk of miscarriage and abdominal defects. It also has possible carcinogenic properties, according to the Pesticide Action Network. Chlorpyrifos, a similar common insecticide used on oranges, apples, and other fruits, works to attack the nervous system. Short-term exposure can lead to weakness, nausea, and headaches. But longer term health impacts of chlorpyrifos include neurodevelopmental issues, lower IQ among children, and can act as an endocrine disruptor.
Under Trump, the EPA has already rejected calls to ban chlorpyrifos outright, a move the previous administration was considering. After the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups sued the agency, a judge ruled the agency had to decide on a ban by March 2017. The EPA decided not to issue a ban, citing a need to “provide regulation certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos.”
Currently, there is no minimum age to how old farmworkers have to be to apply pesticides. But a large body of scientific research has found positive correlations between these two pesticides and harmful health issues for children with developing bodies and brains. Experts are worried the delay could pose unnecessary health risks that could otherwise be mitigated by a regulation the EPA wants delayed.
“For the first time, EPA was going to make sure that kids and youths are not applying restricted-use pesticides,” O’Neil said. “We felt it was alarming and appalling that the Trump administration would put aside health and safety in further delaying this important rule aimed at protecting farmworkers and young Americans from dangerous pesticides.”
The EPA’s proposed delay would especially have a big impact on vulnerable populations like younger and undocumented farmworkers.
In early May, more than 50 farmworkers became sick in Bakersfield, California when a nearby mandarin orchard was sprayed with a chlorpyrifos-based pesticide. A dozen farmworkers sought out medical care, but others also walked away before medical personnel and local authorities arrived.
No clear explanations have been given for why those farmworkers left. But with an agricultural industry so heavily reliant on immigrant labor, it could be because they are undocumented and were afraid to speak with local law enforcement out of deportation fears. Almost half of U.S. agricultural workers are likely undocumented, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and pesticide exposure among this population is all too common.
“We had farmworkers tell us outright that their contractors or their supervisors will tell them ‘if you complain, I’m going to turn you into immigration,’” Jeannie Economos, the project coordinator for Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health at the Farmworker Association of Florida, told ThinkProgress last year after a group of immigrants were forced to go back to work when they were exposed to pesticides. “Whether they would or they won’t isn’t the point, but it’s enough of an intimidation and threat to the farmworkers to not stand up for their rights.”
Since he took office, President Donald Trump has signed executive orders to eliminate restrictions to detain and deport people and to hire more immigration enforcement agents. The president spoke at a roundtable on farm labor at the White House last month, promising agricultural leaders an improvement of a temporary program to legally allow agricultural workers into the United States.