Improvements Needed to Ensure the Safety of Farmworkers and Their Children

RCED-00-40: Published: Mar 14, 2000. Publicly Released: Apr 13, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on issues related to the safety of children who may be exposed to pesticides in agricultural settings, focusing on: (1) what federal requirements govern the safe use of pesticides, particularly as they relate to protecting children in agricultural settings; (2) what information is available on the acute and chronic effects of agricultural pesticide exposure, particularly on children; and (3) what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done to ensure that its Worker Protection Standard considers the needs of children and is being adequately implemented and enforced.

GAO noted that: (1) two laws principally govern the safe use of pesticides: (a) the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, which requires that pesticides be approved by EPA for specified uses; and (b) the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which regulates the residues of pesticides on or in foods; (2) in 1996, the Food Quality Protection Act amended these two laws, requiring EPA to reevaluate the amount of pesticide residues allowed on or in food, taking into account consumers' aggregate exposure from other sources, including residential exposures; (3) EPA is generally required to apply an additional margin of safety in setting limits on pesticide residues to ensure the safety of food for infants and children; (4) EPA must also consider any available information concerning "major identifiable subgroups of consumers" in reevaluating the amount of pesticide residues that can remain on or in foods; (5) in October 1998, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others petitioned EPA to identify children living on and near farms as a major identifiable subgroup for the purposes of the Food Quality Protection Act; (6) in its initial response, EPA said it was funding several studies aimed at assessing the effects of farm children's exposure to pesticides; (7) comprehensive information on acute and chronic health effects due to pesticide exposure does not exist, and data sources to track acute--short term--pesticide illnesses are incomplete and have limitations that result in the underestimation of both the frequency and the severity of such illnesses; (8) a number of federally sponsored studies are under way related to the chronic effects of pesticide exposure, but it will be many years before conclusive results from these studies are known; (9) EPA implemented the Worker Protection Standard to reduce farmworkers' exposure to pesticides; (10) according to EPA, one of the most important protections afforded by the Standard is the time intervals between when the pesticides are applied and when workers may enter treated areas; (11) these entry intervals were designed for adults and children 12 years and older; (12) EPA has little assurance the protections in the Standard are being provided at all; and (13) GAO found EPA regions have been inconsistent in whether they set goals for the number of worker protection inspections states should conduct, in defining what constitutes a worker protection inspection, and in the extent to which they oversee and monitor states' implementation and enforcement of the Standard.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A joint EPA/NIOSH effort produced a "How To" manual on tracking pesticide illnesses. This action implements the intent of GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better understand the overall risks that pesticides pose for farmworkers and their families as well as for the general public, the Administrator, EPA, should work with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Center for Environmental Health to implement their suggestions for improving the quality of information on acute pesticide illnesses in the nation, including establishing time frames, assigning responsibilities, and identifying resource needs and sources to accomplish this important objective.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2004, EPA provided documentation of its efforts to mitigate potential adverse effects of pesticide exposure on children under 12 and farm workers in general. For example, EPA sent a Federal Register notice dated May 26, 2004, indicating that EPA has a cooperative agreement with the Association of Farm Worker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) through which EPA funds the National Pesticide Safety Education Program for agricultural workers and farm worker children. AFOP trains 25,000 farm workers and farm worker children every year about pesticide safety in over 50 sites in 16 states. AFOP also conducts pesticide safety training for children at childcare centers, schools, churches, and community centers, and has developed a handbook in Spanish. Also, through EPA funding, AFOP has developed radio programs targeted at preventing pesticide poisonings of children. (EPA provide GAO with transcripts of four public service announcements that, according to an EPA official, aired on 194 stations across the country on June 21-27, 2004, and are slated to air again in August 2004. Three out of the four announcements specifically mention health dangers to children.) The May 26, 2004 Federal Register Notice further states that EPA has initiated a program with the Migrant Head Start Program to develop materials and training on pesticide safety for migrant families, with specific attention to protecting children from pesticides. In addition, the notice states that EPA contributed funding for development of a bilingual pesticide safety training video entitled "The Playing Field," that uses the story of a girl poisoned by playing in a treated field to teach farmworkers and farmworker children about the dangers of pesticides and how to protect themselves. The notice also states that EPA's field offices are performing a number of outreach activities on pesticide safety for farm workers and their families. EPA provided GAO with 12 pages of examples of headquarters and regional efforts on pesticide safety for the workers and their families. In addition, EPA provided copies of two newspaper articles that it has developed about the risks of pesticide exposure for children and how to mitigate these risks. An EPA official indicated that the articles would be published in the Spanish press in August 2004.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should identify and expeditiously implement steps to mitigate the potential adverse effects of pesticide exposure on children below the age of 12 who work in agriculture or are otherwise present in pesticide-treated fields. Such steps might range from warning farmworker parents about the adverse effects that agricultural pesticides may have on their young children to having pesticide labels clearly state that children should not enter pesticide-treated agricultural areas for specified periods.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA provided a presentation on its methods for estimating exposure from reentry activities and whether they were adequately protective of children's age at a December 2002 meeting of EPA's Health Protection Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C. EPA concluded that there was not a meaningful difference between the exposures for adults and teen workers. EPA provided GAO with copies of the briefing slides.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should complete the documentation supporting EPA's conclusion that the Worker Protection Standard's entry intervals adequately protect children 12 years of age and older, and provide the documentation to the Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee for its review.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2004, the Chief of the Agricultural Branch of the compliance section of EPA's Office of Enforcement sent a summary of actions taken by EPA to implement the recommendation, including the following. (1) EPA has issued a WPS inspection definition as an addendum to the fiscal year (FY) 2002/2003 Pesticide Cooperative Agreement Guidance. (2) Regarding the number of inspections to be conducted, EPA has provided guidance stating, "The appropriate number of inspections to be conducted in any state or tribal lands should be consistent with the number of farms and farm employees covered by WPS. The appropriate number of WPS inspections is to be negotiated between grantees and their Regional Offices." EPA believes this guidance achieves the objective of ensuring that WPS inspections are conducted while providing flexibility to the state/tribe to address resource and workload issues. (3) EPA's 2002/2003 Pesticide Cooperative Agreement Guidance included further guidance for regional oversight of the cooperative agreements, including consideration of the adequacy of dedicated state resources. (4) With regard to ensuring consistency in EPA's regional offices' oversight of the program, EPA has developed and distributed revised file review procedures to be used by EPA regions to review state and tribal WPS files. EPA has also developed a sample WPS-inspection checklist and inspector interview questions, to be distributed after a final review, and has developed a risk-based inspection targeting strategy, to be distributed in final form in August 2004. In addition, EPA continues to fund two inspector training courses per year. (5) EPA has a workgroup charged with collecting and analyzing data on WPS inspections and enforcement. EPA provided GAO with a compilation of these data for FY 2002 and FY 2003. Supplementary documentation concerning EPA training and specific enforcement actions was provided by the Enforcement Office's litigation section. While EPA has not set a specific number of WPS inspections per state as a goal, the agency has substantially implemented GAO's multipart recommendation to improve oversight.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should improve EPA's oversight of the states' implementation and enforcement of the Worker Protection Standard by, among other things: (1) clearly defining what constitutes a worker protection inspection for the purposes of the cooperative agreements; (2) establishing goals for the minimum number of worker protection inspections that states should conduct annually under their cooperative agreements; (3) examining whether the resources states dedicate for this function under the cooperative agreements are adequate to achieve the goals established; (4) clarifying the roles and responsiblities of EPA's regional offices to ensure consistency in their oversight of the program; and (5) taking the necessary steps to obtain and analyze data on the results of the states' worker protection inspections, including the number and types of actions taken in response to worker protection violations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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