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Workers and Communities Still Unprotected by EPA Fumigant Rule, Advocates Say

(Beyond Pesticides, May 29, 2008) The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced May 27, 2009 modified safety measures for soil fumigant pesticides, falling short of safety advocate efforts to adopt more stringent use restrictions and chemical bans. The new regulations follow a July 10, 2008 proposed rule, which resulted from three years of deliberation. Safety advocates said last July that while substantially better than the past, the proposed regulation fell short in protecting people, workers and the environment and from that perspective this weeks regulation is a disappointment. Advocates believe that the country can do better to phase out uses of highly hazardous chemicals that have devastating impact on exposed workers and communities in which they are used, and advance green technologies and organic practices.

Fumigants, which are among the most toxic chemicals used in agriculture, are gases or liquids that are injected or dripped into the soil to sterilize a field before planting. Even with plastic tarps on the soil, fumigants escape from the soil and drift through the air into schools, homes, parks and playgrounds. Strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, carrots and potatoes are some of the major crops for which fumigant use is high.

The agency says these measures will reduce fumigant exposures to bystanders: people who live, work, attend school, or spend time near agricultural fields that are fumigated, and increase overall safety of fumigant use by requiring greater planning and compliance. Some of EPA’s new measures include creating or altering buffer zones, enforcing posting requirements, adding measures to protect agricultural workers, and strengthening training programs. Changes will begin to take effect in 2010 and 2011.

However, advocates criticize the agency’s buffer zone (an established non-treatment area in which it is known that chemical from the treated area drifts) provision, which can incorporate residential areas, as severely limited and question the enforceability of the standard. First, buffer zones can be a little as 25 feet. Second, the provision allows residential areas (including employee housing, private property, buildings, commercial, industrial, and other areas that people may occupy or outdoor residential areas, such as lawns, gardens, or play areas) to actually be in the buffer zone if, “The occupants provide written agreement that they will voluntarily vacate the buffer zone during the entire buffer zone period, and reentry by occupants and other non-handlers does not occur until the buffer zone period has ended.” The provision continues, “For formulations with greater than 80% methyl bromide, air monitoring with direct-read instruments shows concentrations are below action levels before reentry is permitted.”

N4vertheless, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, in a press release concludes that, “With new restrictions, we’re allowing the continued use of fumigant pesticides without risking human health and the environment.” She continues, “Full transparency and the best science shaped a plan to protect the economic interests of agricultural communities and the public health of farm workers and consumers.”

EPA’s proposed rule was released for public comment in July 2008, prompting criticism from environmental and farmworker activists for the minimal progress achieved by these changes. For example, Jeannie Economos, pesticide health and safety coordinator with the Farmworker Association of Florida, said at the time, “We appreciate the mitigation measures that EPA has taken. However, we foresee that enforcement could still be problematic. Any exposure of a worker or a farmworker community is a risk that we shouldn’t take. The best solution is to ban fumigants altogether.” Rather than ban these toxic chemicals, EPA chose to tinker with buffer zones and monitoring (including, in the case of chloropicrin, to reduce required buffer zones). For a summary of EPA’s complete changes, click here.

Soil fumigants are pesticides that, when injected or incorporated into soil, form a gas that permeates the soil and kills a wide array of soil-borne pests. The gas can migrate from the soil into the air. Off-site workers or bystanders exposed to these pesticides may experience eye, nose, throat, or respiratory irritation, or more severe poisonings, depending on the fumigant and level of exposure. Chronic exposure to some of these chemicals can also lead to lasting health effects, like cancer and developmental defects. Fumigants affected by this new rule are methyl bromide, chloropicrin, dazomet, metam sodium, metam potassium, and iodomethane.


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