Underwood leads suit against Trump Administration to protect farmworkers from pesticide poisoning

NYS Attorney General Barbara Underwood

Underwood leads suit against Trump Administration to protect farmworkers from pesticide poisoning

Coalition challenges Trump EPA’s indefinite suspension of improved safety training, which had been established to better protect farmworkers from toxic chemical pesticides; up to 1,120 New York farmworkers may be harmed by pesticides yearly – EPA delay denies crucial health and safety information for as many as 80,000 farmworkers and their families

New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood, joined by Attorneys General Xavier Becerra of California and Brian Frosh of Maryland, today led a lawsuit against the Trump Environmental Protection Agency for its indefinite delay of a key requirement of the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard. Specifically, EPA has suspended the requirement for employers to provide improved training intended to better protect farmworkers, pesticide handlers, and their families from pesticides poisoning.

In its filing in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Attorneys General charge that EPA’s indefinite delay of critical health and safety training violates several requirements of the federal Administrative Procedures Act, including being arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.

“Pesticides are meant to be poisonous. Yet, Trump EPA is purposefully denying farmworkers the tools they need to protect themselves and their families from these dangerous chemicals,” Underwood said.  “EPA’s indefinite suspension of critical pesticide safety training is reprehensible – and illegal. We will continue to do what’s necessary to protect the health and safety of all New Yorkers.”

The New York State Department of Labor estimates that the agriculture industry in New York employs 40,000 to 80,000 farmworkers every year, including domestic, guest worker, year-round and seasonal workers. While underreporting and gaps in oversight data are recognized problems with respect to occupational illness among farmworkers, estimates of acute pesticide poisoning range as high as 1,400 cases per year per 100,000 farmworkers. As such, the upper bound employment figure of 80,000 farmworkers would yield an estimate of up to 1,120 acute pesticide poisonings in New York each year. These estimates would not include chronic illnesses associated with pesticide exposure to farmworkers and their families.

The acute symptoms from overexposure to pesticides vary. For example, exposure to organophosphate pesticides can result in headaches, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, and impaired vision. Severe acute exposures can result in seizures, respiratory depression, loss of consciousness, and even death. There is also a wide range of literature demonstrating statistical associations between pesticide exposure and cancer, including blood cancers, prostate cancer, and lung cancer; preliminary investigations have identified elevated risks of respiratory and neurological effects, including asthma, chronic bronchitis, and Parkinson’s disease, from chronic exposure to pesticides.

Pesticides pose particularly dangerous risks to the children of farmworkers and pesticide handlers, who may transport the pesticides into the home on their skin, clothing, or shoes. Studies have shown an association between mothers exposed to pesticides during pregnancy and increased risk of birth defects and fetal death. Other studies have reported delayed mental development and development of behavior related to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder associated with increased childhood exposure to organophosphate pesticides.

In 2015 – for the first time in nearly twenty-five years – EPA updated and strengthened its WPS “to prevent unreasonable adverse effects from exposure to pesticides among agricultural workers and pesticide handlers, vulnerable groups (such as minority or low-income populations, child farmworkers, and farmworker families), and other persons who may be on or near agricultural establishments.” In finalizing the rule, EPA concluded that enhanced safety training for farmworkers and pesticide handlers would reduce both the incidence and the severity of pesticide exposures.  The rule included a number of critical improvements to the previous training requirements, including expanding the content for pesticide safety training, setting qualifications for trainers, and requiring more frequent training. EPA found that “[t]he expansion of information provided in the training will enable workers and handlers to better protect themselves and their families, by increasing their knowledge of how to reduce take-home residues from treated areas.”

The 2015 WPS required employers to comply with its enhanced pesticide safety training provisionswithin 180 days after EPA published in the Federal Register a notice of availability of improved training materials. However, in December 2017, EPA indefinitely delayed the publication of the notice of the availability of these required training materials – thereby indefinitely suspending the improved pesticide safety training requirements that EPA itself had determined were necessary to protect farmworkers from exposure to toxic chemical pesticides.

EPA announced this decision stating that it intended to reconsider certain aspects of the 2015 Rule, and that it would not publish a notice of the availability of the expanded pesticide safety training materials until its reconsideration was complete. EPA has taken no public action related to reconsidering the rule.

EPA indefinitely delayed the publication of the notice of availability while at the same time admitting that the improved training materials had been prepared and were, in fact, publicly available. EPA justified its refusal to publish the notice by stating that if it decided at the completion of reconsideration to revise the 2015 WPS, the expanded training materials would have to be changed accordingly: “EPA is delaying the publication of the training materials availability notice to prevent extra work and costs to developers of the training materials and EPA reviewers.” EPA did not explain how publishing the notice of availability would create extra work or costs for developers or EPA reviewers, given that training materials had already been prepared, approved by EPA, and made accessible on the Pesticide Educational Resources Collaborative website (www.pesticideresources.org) through a cooperative agreement with the Agency.

While EPA referenced hardship to materials developers and agency reviewers in indefinitely suspending the pesticide safety training requirements, EPA made no mention of the impact that the suspension of the training may have on the health and safety of farmworkers, pesticide handlers, and their families.

This matter is being handled for Attorney General Underwood by Assistant Attorneys General Laura Mirman-Heslin and Abigail E. Rosner, Senior Counsel for Air Pollution and Climate Change Litigation Michael J. Myers, and Policy Advisor Peter C. Washburn of the Environmental Protection Bureau. The Environmental Protection Bureau is led by Bureau Chief Lemuel M. Srolovic and is part of the Division of Social Justice, which is led by Executive Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice Matthew Colangelo.

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