The Environmental Protection Agency this week finalized new rules on pesticide application, updating for the first time since 1992 regulations aimed at improving farmworker safety.
While workers advocates, labor unions and environmental groups cheered the move as long overdue, a review of wholly-dismissive public comments filed last year suggests agribusiness could vigorously resist and challenge the reforms.
Filing remarks in opposition to the proposed rule last year were The Biopesticide Industry Alliance (BPIA)–a group that counts chemical-maker giants Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta among members–and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFB), an industry group that has been accused of appropriating small farmers’ interests to advance a corporate agenda.
“Rather than proposing a wholesale re-write of the [Worker Protection Standards], EPA should focus on updating applicator training to address recent changes in agricultural pest management practices,” BPIA said.
The AFB primarily expressed concerns about a lack of detailed cost-benefit analysis from the EPA itself on its proposed new requirements, though the group conceded that it believes the rules will have “no identifiable benefit.”
AFB alone spends millions on lobbying each year, according to a 2012 article published by The Nation, which noted that “it has become a close second to Monsanto in lobby expenditures for agriculture-related issues, spending nearly $6 million in 2011.”
In recent years, the bureau has led an unsuccessful challenge of EPA rules designed to improve the cleanliness of the Chesapeake Bay. An appellate judge ruled this summer that the initiative was legal. Last week, the group said it intended on appealing the decision to the Supreme Court.
While it is currently reviewing the proposed rule and weighing its next options, the AFB, no doubt, wishes that it wouldn’t have to do anything to try to maintain the status quo.
“We would suggest that the absence of any reliable statistics demonstrates that the existing system is working well,” it said in its public comment.
The bureau, however, also claimed its case against the new pesticide rules is bolstered by Center for Disease Control data on pesticide exposure between 1998 and 2006. Furthermore, while the dataset demonstrates a decreased incidence over time of severe pesticide-caused infirmaries, that drop only occurs alongside a marked 50 percent increase in the frequency of “low” severity incidents.
“Perhaps more importantly, [the data] appear to show no evidence between the types and severity of exposures between Hispanics (the predominant demographic for agricultural workers) and others,” AFB said in its comments. “This runs counter to the agency’s assumption that the demographics of this population calls for stricter, tighter requirements on agricultural employers.”
The finalized pesticide rules come in the form of training, and disclosure requirements. They will: prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from applying pesticides and other hazardous materials; alter requirements on decontamination and protective equipment; offer better information about pesticides to workers; increase mandated worker safety training sessions from two per decade to one annually, and aim to improve the content of those educational initiatives.
The EPA has estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 farm workers fall ill due to pesticides, but noted that the number could be far higher, particularly given under-reporting and long-term impacts of exposure. The agency said that farmhands annually report between 1,800 and 3,000 pesticide exposure incidents.
An environmentalist advocacy group that has long called for the tougher rules, EarthJustice, said back in 2013 that “a significant number of the nations estimated 1-2 million farmworkers and their families are exposed to toxic pesticides.”
“These exposures result in serious short and long-term health impacts, including stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, nausea, headaches and even death. Long-term impacts include delayed and include infertility, birth defects, endocrine disruption, neurological disorders and cancer,” the group said two years ago.
On Monday, Earthjustice senior lobbyist Andrea Delgado said in a press release the new standard “will give farmworkers renewed hope in our democratic process and in the political will to protect the most vulnerable.”
Read public comments on the EPA’s updated pesticide Worker Protection Standard here.