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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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Protecting Farmworker Children from Pesticide Exposure

By Joan Flocks, JD, MA

In the United States, potentially carcinogenic pesticide exposures are subject to a net of protective regulations. But the population most in need of protection from hazardous exposures -  farmworker children – is falling through holes in that regulatory net.

According to the 2008-2009 Annual Report for the President’s Caner Panel, exposure to the pesticides approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for agricultural and non-agricultural use have been linked to Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma; multiple myeloma; soft tissue sarcoma; and cancers of the brain/central nervous system, breast, colon, lung, ovary, pancreas, kidney, testicle, and stomach.[1] In agricultural settings, those most at risk of direct dermal, oral, or inhalation exposure to pesticides are farmers, pesticide applicators, and farmworkers.

Farmworkers are predominately low-income workers of color who face many challenges in addressing occupational and environmental hazards, including chronic exposure to pesticides.[2] Their children are even more overburdened. Like all children, those from farmworker families have higher levels of dermal and dietary exposure to pesticides than adults because they have more extensive contact with potentially contaminated surfaces; higher body surface to weight ratio; and higher food and water intake in proportion to body size.[3] But beyond these more typical childhood routes of exposure, farmworker children can also be more intensely or uniquely exposed in utero or through breast milk of their working mothers, through pesticide spray drift if they live in or near farm fields, through contact with their family members’ contaminated work clothing or skin, or through direct contact if they are brought to the fields by working parents or they are working in the fields themselves.[4],[5]

The EPA regulates pesticide exposure through two major federal statutes. The Agency licenses or registers pesticides for sale and distribution under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which also contains the Worker Protection Standard. It establishes tolerances, limits for pesticide residues in or on food, under section 408 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which was amended by the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996, in recognition of infants’ and children’s vulnerability.

According to FIFRA, in order for a pesticide to be distributed or sold, it must first be registered. There are several concerns regarding the data requirements and other provisions of the registration process. Data requirements are often flexible and include exemptions, exceptions, and other Administrator discretions. Often, data are lacking about particular chemicals, especially with regard to how they impact those who work with them on a daily basis. A particularly controversial aspect of the registration process is the explicit consideration of economic factors such as the benefits of using the pesticide and the expense of generating data.[6] In other words, the regulation provides for a cost/benefit analysis that weighs a pesticide’s unreasonable risk to humans or the environment against its beneficial commercial use. Yet, the adverse health effects of pesticides on workers and their children is a public health matter, and it is questionable whether it should be subject to an economically driven calculation.

The Worker Protection Standard has also generated controversy since its inception in 1992. There are several specific ways in which employers are required to protect farmworkers, including enforcing entry time restrictions into pesticide-treated areas, providing information about applied pesticides in a centrally located area, and providing workers with training on how to protect themselves from pesticides. But several evaluations have questioned whether the WPS has succeeded in protecting farmworkers from pesticide exposure.[7] In particular, training quality and effectiveness and the states’ role and history in enforcing the standard have been debated. In response to decades of stakeholder scrutiny and review, the EPA has recently updated the WPS; the new version is currently in a public comment phase.[8] Some of the revisions have the potential to improve worker safety. For example, the revised regulation increases the frequency of required training for workers and sets a minimum age of 16 for most pesticide handlers. Yet public comments also reveal how the proposed revision falls short; there is still no additional consideration for the effects on children of take-home exposures, for example. And a simple fact remains: because of their unique routes of exposure, farmworker children are not adequately protected when the working adults in their families are not adequately protected. 

The Food Quality Protection Act incorporates more protective, risk-only measures into their tolerance standards. Risk assessment under these regulations incorporates an additional safety factor to protect children, aggregation of all non-occupational (food, water and residential) exposures to a pesticide, and consideration of cumulative effects. Farmworker children, like all children, undoubtedly benefit from these heightened protections. However, these regulations also do not consider the unique or more intense means of exposure that farmworker children experience, such as through contact with family member’s work clothes or through pesticide drift into their home environments. In May, 2014, several advocacy groups filed an Administrative Objection and court appeal asking that the EPA immediately address the lack of consideration in its regulation for child protection against pesticide drift.[9]

For farmworker children, the illusion of protective regulation serves only to institutionalize a bias against them. Those concerned about the health of overburdened populations such as farmworkers and children must be particularly persistent and active, including submitting public comments, as the EPA considers several important modifications to their regulations. Health care providers serving these communities should also become vigilant by educating themselves on the issues, seeking more training in occupational and environmental health, learning about pesticide poisoning reporting and state statutory requirements regarding pesticides, asking patients if they work with pesticides, and supporting community-based organizations in their efforts to address these issues.



[1] US Department of Health and Human Services/President's Cancer Panel. Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk. April 2010. Accessed 6/5/14.

[2] Flocks J. The environmental and social injustice of farmworker pesticide exposure. Geo. J. on Poverty L. & Pol'y. 2012: 19(2):255-282.

[3] Eskenazi B, Marks AR, Bradman A, Harley K, Bart DB, Johnson C, Morga N and Jewell NP. Organophosphate pesticide exposure and neurodevelopment in young Mexican-American children. Environ Health Perspect. 2007: 115(5): 792-798.

[4] Eskenazi B, Bradman A, and Castorina R. Exposures of children to organophosphate pesticides and their potential adverse health effects. Environ Health Perspect. 1999:107(Suppl3):409-419.

[5] Curl CL, Fenske RA, Kissel JC, Shirai JH, Moate TF, Griffith W, Coronado G, and Thompson B. Evaluation of take-home organophosphorus pesticide exposure among agricultural workers and their children. Environ Health Perspect. 2002: 110(12):A787-92.

[6] See 7 U.S.C. §136(bb) and §136a(c)(2)(A) .

[7] U.S. Government Accountability Office. GAO/RCED-00-40, Pesticides – Improvements Needed to Ensure the Safety of Farmworkers and their Children. March 2000. Accessed 6/9/14.

[8] Environmental Protection Agency. Proposed Agricultural Worker Protection Standard: EPA Needs Your Input. Accessed 6/9/14.

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