A an estimated 2.4 million people work on farms in the USA. Although their work is essential to agriculture and the economy, exposure to pesticides continues to be a major occupational hazard, and the effects ripple through society and the foods we eat.
Pesticides can easily drift onto farm workers, as well as schools and neighborhoods near fields. Current pesticide regulations are not consistently enforced and vulnerable workers are not always able to seek help in the event of a violation.
Exposures can continue around the clock, especially on farms where workers and their families live, says Olivia Guarna, lead author of a recent report, “Exposed and at risk: Opportunities to Strengthen Enforcement of Pesticide Regulations for Agricultural Worker Safety”, by the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law and Graduate School, in partnership with the nonprofit advocacy group Farmworker Justice. This report is part of a series of reports addressing needed policy reforms and federal oversight of programs impacting agricultural workers.
Alongside faculty and staff at the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems, Guarna, a summer intern specializing in environmental issues, spent 10 weeks interviewing lawyers, government officials, administrators, legal advisers and farm worker advocates, to research how pesticide use is regulated and enforced in Washington, California, Illinois and Florida. What Guarna did not expect is how complicated the regulatory system is. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency technically monitors pesticide use, but in practice it receives little data from states, whose enforcement is patchy at best. “There are a lot more protections on paper than I think are actually implemented to protect farm workers,” she says.
One of the biggest problems, according to Laurie Beyranevand, director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems and one of the report’s authors, is that unlike other environmental laws administered by the EPA, the agency does not collect insufficient data from Member States, which makes it more difficult to apply existing standards.
In Florida, according to the report, inspections are almost never a surprise. “Farm workers report that when inspectors come to the farms, producers know they are coming and they need to be prepared,” says Mayra Reiter, occupational safety and health project manager for Farmworker Justice. “Inspectors don’t see what’s going on day to day in these workplaces.”
Washington is considered one of the most progressive states in terms of agricultural worker protection. Yet between 2015 and 2019, Guarna found that the average violation rate was 418%, meaning multiple violations were found during each inspection performed.
In California, when violations are found, fines are often not imposed, the report concludes. Even when fines are imposed, they often amount to amounts in the order of $250 — nominal fines that producers view as part of the cost of doing business. Only one case reported in California between 2019 and 2021 involved a producer being fined the largest sum of $12,000.
Yet California is one of the few states to make information about what chemicals are applied and where available to the public. Elsewhere he is virtually unknown. Washington, Florida and Illinois do not require reporting of pesticide use.
“You have the farm workers directly exposed, and there’s so little transparency about what’s in our food,” Guarna says. “It’s not just farm workers who are affected – drift is a big problem when it’s close to schools and neighborhoods. We know so little. Many health effects occur years later.
In some cases, toxic exposure has become quickly and tragically evident when babies are born with birth defects. In the space of seven weeks in 2004 and 2005, for example, three pregnant farm workers who worked for the same tomato grower, Ag-Mart, in North Carolina and Florida, gave birth to babies with severe birth defects, like being born without arms or legs. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services filed two lawsuits against Ag-Mart in 2005, alleging a total of 88 separate violations of pesticide use laws. Ultimately, 75 of those violations were dismissed. Ag-Mart was fined a total of $11,400.
Yet thousands of poisonings continue to occur each year, says Farmworker Justice. In August 2019, for example, a farmworker’s field in central Illinois was sprayed with pesticides when a nearby pesticide applicator’s plane flew directly overhead, the report notes. Several workers presented to local emergency rooms with symptoms of chemical exposure.
Despite these incidents, Illinois does not require medical providers to report suspected cases of exposure. It was only because a medical provider at the hospital personally knew someone from the local public health department – who in turn contacted connections at the Illinois Migrant Council and for help. Chicago Legal – that the exposure prompted a lawsuit.
Workers often live on the farms where they work, exposing them to chemicals virtually 24 hours a day, Reiter adds. “We know from the testimonies of farm workers that when they come home they can smell the pesticides, and it lingers for days after they come back,” she says.
Vulnerable legal status can make it difficult for agricultural workers to report exposures. According to Farmworker Justice, millions of agricultural workers come from Mexico, Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America, although significant numbers also come from countries like Jamaica and South Africa. A it is estimated that half of agricultural workers in the United States are undocumented.
Millions more are coming H2-A Guest Worker Visas which allow them to come to the country for seasonal jobs of up to 10 months. These temporary visas are tied to specific employers, so workers fear deportation or other reprisals if they file security breach complaints.
“Because (workers) are considered expendable, they are routinely exposed to neurotoxic pesticides that can be carried home,” says agricultural policy expert Robert Martin, who recently retired from the John Hopkins Center for a Deliverable Future. “These are largely immigrants, and they don’t have a lot of legal protections. The lawyers they have, like Farmworker Justice, are great, but they’re really taken advantage of by the system because of their legal status.
The inherent conflicts of interest also present legal loopholes. State agencies responsible for enforcing federal and state pesticide safety laws, such as state departments of agriculture, are often the same agencies that promote the economic interests of the agriculture industry. And farm workers know it. “That kind of cultural conflict is a big problem,” says Guarna. “Farmworkers have become deeply skeptical of agriculture departments and skeptical that they have the interests of farmworkers at heart. They fear that their complaints will fall on deaf ears.
Although the EPA is legally required to monitor state agencies, in practice it only requires states to report on federally funded work – and the vast majority of state programs are funded. by state budgets. Mandatory, universal standards for inspections and responses to breaches would be extremely helpful, the report concludes. “One of our recommendations is that there should be program-wide reporting where states, tribes, and territories must report all of their activities,” Guarna says. “There are some very low-key fixes that can be made that would have a huge impact, so I’m hopeful on that.”
Among the report’s 17 policy recommendations is to ensure that pesticide safety enforcement is delegated to an agency specifically tasked with protecting workers’ health. This could include transferring enforcement to state departments of labor or health, or even creating a new authority specifically dedicated to pesticide regulation.
“Exposed and At Risk” follows a previous report from the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems which focused on the two main threats facing agricultural workers: heat stress and exposure to pesticides. It focused on opportunities for states to take action to better protect agricultural workers and was written in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. This collaboration also led to a third gear, titled “Essential and in Crisis: A Review of the Public Health Threats Facing Farmworkers in the US”, which recently explored the impacts of industrial agriculture on public health and the environment. Martin, co-author of these conclusions, explains that the concentration of power and wealth of large agribusinesses has consequences for both worker safety and the environment.
Following corporate consolidation since the 1980s, “there are fewer meat, seed and pesticide companies, and their combined economic power really keeps the status quo in place,” says Martin. “There are some pretty direct public health threats from these operations.”
As “Exposed and at Risk” notes, the regulatory system should be structured to protect agricultural workers. But currently, federal regulators lack sufficient data to even identify huge enforcement gaps. Requiring states to develop comprehensive reporting systems would be a small step toward protecting the foundations of American agriculture.
Vermont Law and Graduate School, a private, independent institution, is home to a law school that offers hybrid residential and online JD programs and a graduate school that offers master’s degrees and certificates in several disciplines, including programs offered by the School for the Environment, the Center for Justice Reform, and other graduate programs emphasizing the intersection of environmental justice, social justice, and public policy. Both the law and graduate schools feature clinical and field-based experiential learning. For more information, visit vermontlaw.edu, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.