More than one billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States, three-quarters of which are used in agriculture. Because these chemicals are used in nearly all fields where crops are harvested, it places farmworkers at the greatest risk for exposure.
It is clear that pesticide labels contain vital and even life-saving information. They provide critical instruction on how to safely handle and use pesticide products, what personal protective equipment (PPE) should be worn, and give warnings, precautionary statements, and first aid advice.
Most farmworkers speak Spanish as their native language, according to the National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS), and more than half cannot speak, read, or write in English. Pesticides, however, which most farmworkers and handlers work with every day, continue to be labeled in English only. While training is required for anyone coming into contact with pesticides, it is not always given in a language the workers understand, when it is given at all.
Despite the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to reduce pesticide exposure among farmworkers by requiring the Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Pesticides (WPS) training, many farmworkers have not received training in the safe use of pesticides. For example in the article linked above it stated: according to one study from the North Dakota Department of Health, 90% of migrant farmworkers in North Dakota and Minnesota had not been trained in WPS. Other studies indicated in that article also showed that 60% of the farms checked in Michigan had not provided training to their workers, and 84% of California farmworkers interviewed had not received training or instruction. AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs offers these trainings free of charge to farmworkers and their employers, yet more than 77% of the farmworkers we train are just receiving this life-saving information for the very first time.
It would seem that the burden is then unduly placed on the workers who cannot keep themselves safe if they do not understand the guidelines to do so. Farmworkers need to be able to read pesticide labels in case of emergencies. When farmworkers cannot read safety instructions, they are at higher risk for pesticide exposure, and their families and communities are at risk for pesticide contamination resulting from improper use of these chemicals. In fact, a recent study in Washington State, showed that pesticide handlers who could not read English were more likely to be exposed to pesticides than those who could read English.
After receiving a petition from a variety of farmworker advocacy groups, the EPA recently invited interested groups to comment on whether bilingual labels should be placed on all pesticide products in the U.S. The interested groups, which included the general public, farmers, farmworkers, state pesticide regulatory communities, the enforcement community, and the pesticide industry, answered EPA’s questions about costs, benefits, and enforcement of bilingual pesticide labeling. AFOP signed onto a letter to the EPA prepared by Farmworker Justice and the Migrant Clinicians Network outlining the importance of bilingual labeling.
While the period for comments to the EPA is now closed, it is currently unknown when the EPA will make a decision. Those opposed to bilingual labeling cite cost as an issue. Those in favor of it believe the potential to save countless individuals from dangerous exposure would far outweigh any minimal costs associated with including labeling in Spanish. It is clear that including two languages on pesticides labels is definitely possible and is not cost prohibitive since it is already being done in other countries, such as Canada, where pesticide labels are required to be in English and French. Also, pesticide manufacturers already translate many of their labels into Spanish and other languages in order to sell them internationally.
Spanish-language labels will not eliminate the problem of pesticide exposure among farmworkers, but it will certainly help reduce the frequency and extent of accidental health damages. Peligro, the Spanish word for danger, already appears on the label of restricted use pesticides in the United States—but only time will tell whether the EPA will move to include this important information on the dangers of pesticide exposure in Spanish. Until then, most of America’s 2.5 million farmworkers will be left to rely on others for this life-saving information.