Farmworkers at risk
New EPA head could threaten the health of those who grow our food
While Scott Pruitt was the attorney general of Oklahoma, he sued the Environmental Protection Agency 14 times, mostly to dispute the agency’s right to regulate climate-altering emissions. Recently, Pruitt was confirmed by the Senate to head the EPA and swiftly announced his plan to revoke the Clean Power Plan, a policy enacted by the Obama administration to combat global warming. Pruitt did not mention climate change in his first speech to agency staff on Feb. 21, but asserted that “regulations exist to make things regular,” implying that he’ll work to ease regulatory burdens on polluters.
Pruitt’s positions on climate change have been widely reported. Less well-known are the threats that his approach to the EPA is likely to pose to farmworkers, a group that is inextricably tied to the environment and the climate. These workers, more than half of whom are undocumented, are already busy fighting against President Trump’s promised deportations—but they say they’re prepared to lobby for climate justice, as well.
Part of the problem is that the farmworkers are “invisible,” says Jeannie Economos, the health and safety project coordinator at the Florida Farmworker Association. Most Americans have little contact with farmworkers, which makes the impact climate change will have on them hard to understand.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. As temperatures climb, farmworkers are among the most exposed. Farmworkers are four times more likely to be affected by heat stress, according to an ongoing study by the Economos’ organization. Plus, Economos says, climate change is already increasing crop diseases and pests, which threaten farmworkers’ jobs.
And then there’s the question of pesticides. “If we have warming temperatures, and increased pests on crops, does that mean more pesticide use—and more pesticide exposure for farmworkers?” she asks.
Rosalinda Guillen, a 65-year-old former farmworker who grew up in a farm labor camp in Skagit County, Washington, says she’s certain climate change increases farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides. She believes the effects could be deadly.
“When you’re out in the fields and you’re working hard and you’re sweating because the weather is hot,” she says, “the pesticides are absorbing in your skin—and you’re certainly breathing it in.”
Compounding that issue is the fact that the EPA sets the national rules for pesticide exposure. Those standards were strengthened in 2015 after many years of organizing by farmworkers and their allies. Margaret Reeves, senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network, says her group worked on the issue for 15 years before the standards were changed. The new rules included language prohibiting farmworkers under the age of 18 from handling pesticides, requiring more training for those who apply pesticides, and mandating that farmers keep records of the pesticides they use.
That record-keeping is crucial, Reeves says, because it’s difficult to be sure what impacts chemicals are having when most states don’t require farms to report data on how they’re being used.
Rollback of these reforms would be a money-saver for agribusiness groups that lobbied against them at the time and are now celebrating Pruitt’s confirmation.
But farmworker advocates are worried. “We’re concerned that Pruitt’s antagonistic approach to the EPA can lead to weaker occupational safety measures and increase [farmworkers’] exposure to pesticides,” says Bruce Goldstein, the president of Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for better working conditions for migrant and seasonal farmers. In the past, his organization has taken legal action against the EPA in order to protect farmworkers from exposure to pesticides.
But because the implementation and enforcement of the new EPA rules happen at the state level, Reeves says, she’s hopeful that the stricter rules may stick around, despite any actions Pruitt might take. And “maybe, just maybe, things will move forward,” she says.
Meanwhile, Guillen is organizing on behalf of farmworkers and immigrants with Front and Centered, a coalition of more than 60 organizations representing people of color and of lower-income people—especially those facing serious pollution in the neighborhoods where they live.
“It’s our communities that are impacted first by climate change and policies,” Guillen says. “That’s why our goal is to bring all of these communities together and build enough power so that policymakers are forced to listen to us. When they discuss climate change, we have to be at the table.”