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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Bilingual Pesticide Labels: Farmworkers Deserve No Less

By Jeannie Economos

This essay is in response to: How does our nation's reliance on pesticides affect the health of those who plant and harvest our food?

Farmworkers feed the world. Anyone who eats and who purchases food at a grocery store in the US has an intimate connection to farmworkers, whether they are aware of it or not. Some 50 years after the birth of the farmworker movement in California, farmworkers are still virtually invisible, even though agriculture in our country could not exist without them. Yet, farmworkers risk daily exposure to pesticides, and the consequent health impacts, in the course of their daily work.  

Our food supply in the United States today depends largely on the hard work of an agricultural labor force that plants, cultivates, harvests, and packs the food crops that we all depend on for sustenance. That labor force today is made up largely of men and women of Hispanic background. Statistics show that these farmworkers have some of the highest rates of chemically-related illnesses of any workers in the US. Farmworkers are at the nexus of the agricultural industry’s use of some 1.1 billion pounds (1) of pesticides annually. While the EPA has developed the Worker Protection Standards in an effort to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure, lack of compliance, problems with enforcement, and weaknesses in the standards themselves all amount to inadequate health and safety protections for workers. One action, however, could go a long way toward rectifying what amounts to an injustice against these workers: bilingual pesticide labeling. 

Thousands of different kinds and millions of pounds of chemical pesticides are used in agriculture in the US every single day. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are required to accompany every pesticide product registered for use by the EPA. The MSDS contains critically important information about the proper usage, disposal, and application methods for the particular pesticide product. While some of the information relates to the specified crops and specific usage conditions, other information is of vital importance to the people who are working with the pesticide, such as instructions for safe use and handling. Critical information for handlers, such as the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), the required re-entry interval (REI), proper disposal of empty pesticide containers to avoid soil or watercontamination and/or human exposure, proper first aid, not to mention the acute signs and symptoms of pesticide exposure, is included on the labels. Yet, except for a few rare exceptions, those MSDS sheets are written only in English. 

According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, 81% of farmworkers reported Spanish as their native language and 53% said that they cannot read, write or speak English. Pesticide labels contain EPA-required information in order to safeguard the environment and reduce the risk to human health. Yet, the majority of the people who work around and/or are exposed to these pesticides do not have access to that information, since they do not read English. That is why, in 2010, Migrant Clinicians Network, Farmworker Justice, and several other organizations petitioned EPA to require pesticide manufacturers to print pesticide labels in both English and Spanish. In response, EPA opened up a public comment period on bilingual pesticide labels that closed in June, 2011. The Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF) and PSR, along with other farmworker, environmental health, and workers’ groups around the country, submitted comments to EPA in support of the need for bilingual pesticide labels.

As recently as ten years ago, there were very few scientific studies on the long-term and chronic health effects of exposure to various pesticides and/or classes of pesticides. In recent years, that knowledge deficit has begun to change. Chronic exposure to pesticides can result in long-term and severe health consequences. Parkinson’s disease, as well as reproductive and immune system problems, some cancers and thyroid disorders, in addition to learning disabilities, autism, and ADHD in children have been shown, in some studies, to be correlated with chronic pesticide exposure. Emerging research links diabetes and obesity with higher body burden of toxins, including pesticides. Increasingly, pesticides that had once been deemed to be safe are coming under greater scientific scrutiny. While the environmental persistence of the mostly (except for endosulfan) banned organochlorine pesticides has been known for some time, new studies, such as a recent one on chlordane (2) and autoimmune impacts on humans, are indicating that the end of their use is not the end of their story. Chlorpyrifos (3), on the other hand, while banned for residential use in 2001, is still commonly used in agriculture, and has recently been linked to ADHD in children. A favorite for families’ homes and gardens, as well as in agricultural fields and orchards, Roundup, or glyphosate, has been found to be not so benign after all, as shown in recent studies that link Roundup to birth defects (4) and seepage into groundwater. Mancozeb, a fungicide, has been implicated in the notorious AgMart birth defects incidents in Immokalee, Florida in 2005, in which three separate young farmworker women, all of whom had worked harvesting tomatoes while they were pregnant, gave birth to babies with severe birth defects (5).

The most sensational Immokalee case was that of Carlitos, a baby boy born with no arms or legs. AgMart farms had a history of multiple violations of the EPA Worker Protection Standards. The young farmworker women probably never saw a pesticide label, and may not have been literate in Spanish or English. However, if the persons responsible for applying the pesticides on those fields had been able to read the labels on the pesticides that they used, they may have been able to warn the women of the dangers to pregnant women of working without proper protection around such toxic chemicals.

Sadly, most farmworkers are never told even the names of the pesticides that are being used in their workplaces, much less given the pesticide labels to read. However, the Farmworker Association of Florida, in multiple pesticide trainings that staff have conducted over the past five years, found that 60% of the farmworkers explicitly stated that they wanted to know the names of the pesticides; 37% wanted to know the dangers of pesticide exposure or what they could do to decrease the negative health effects; 6% wanted to know how to better prepare or apply pesticides; and 4% asked to know the re-entry period after pesticides had been sprayed. Pesticide handlers (mixers, loaders, applicators) must know the information on the pesticide labels in order to properly store, handle, apply and dispose of the toxic chemicals that they are using, and they must know the health and environmental risks of improper usage and first aid procedures in case of exposure. For Spanish-speaking pesticide handlers, English-only pesticide labels put them at a disadvantage, with potential risk to themselves, others, and the environment. 

The agricultural industry is resisting bilingual pesticide labels, siting cost and language variation and dialects as being prohibitive and problematic. Yet, pesticide manufacturers are often required to translate pesticide labels for export to other countries and this cost is easily absorbed; and translators agree that there is a standard Spanish that is generally universally understood by Spanish speakers. EPA already requires Worker Protection Standards training materials in English and Spanish. If information is deemed by EPA to be important enough to be required on a pesticide label, then it is equally important that the information be understood by those that are using and/or who are being exposed to the product.

Protection at the front end of agricultural pesticide usage, in the long run, is far less expensive than improper handling, application, and storage of pesticides. FWAF believes that providing pesticide applicators and handlers, as well as farmworkers and others in agriculture, access to information in a language they can read and understand will greatly reduce the risks of needless and dangerous exposures to themselves, to other workers, and to the environment. 

Are pesticide labels in Spanish the cure-all for protecting farmworkers from any kind of exposure to dangerous agricultural pesticides? No, but at least it is an important place to start.


Editor's note: if you'd like to take action on pesticide policy, click here.

Footnotes:

(1) EPA: Pesticide Industry Sales and Usage 2006 and 2007 Market Estimates

(2) Research Brief 199: Foray Into Tackling the Toxicity of Environmental Pesticide Mixture

(3) Chlorpyrifos

(4) Roundup: Birth Defects Caused By World's Top-Selling Weedkiller, Scientists Say

(5) Case Report: Three Farmworkers Who Gave Birth to Infants with Birth Defects Closely Grouped in Time and Place

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