Study: South Dade Plant Nursery Workers Earn Low Pay, Susceptible To Heat Illnesses

WLRN |by Nadege Green | July 30, 2019

“They put me in a shower to get all the chemicals off me,” she reported. “I kept falling down. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t, my body got weaker…I felt like my throat was awful, as if it were cut on the inside.”

A new study that looks at the working conditions of ornamental plant nursery workers in South Miami-Dade found that low wages, harmful exposure to pesticides and inadequate access to drinking water and shade are among the top complaints from workers in the industry.

Miami-Dade County is home to more than 1,500 ornamental nurseries that provide flowering plants, shrubs and trees used for commercial and residential landscaping projects. WeCount, a farmer workers rights group in Homestead, surveyed 300 workers in a workforce largely dominated by immigrant women for the study called “The Human Landscape.”

An ornamental plant nursery in South Miami-Dade.

Workers, largely from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, complete a range of jobs such as potting plants, weeding, driving tractors, digging up trees, loading pallets and customer assitance. They provide a portrait of working long hours outside in intense heat with little reprieve and low pay.

Nearly 70 percent said they experienced heat related illnesses including fainting and headaches due to a lack of shade breaks.

“Folks are under pressure to work fast. They have their order they have to get out and so they don’t want them to take breaks, they want them to produce and that’s that’s a big issue,” said Jonathan Fried, executive director of WeCount.

Miami-Dade recently recorded record-breaking heat and as it gets hotter because of climate change, Fried says farm workers are on the frontline of serious health risks with little protections.

The study also found many workers did not receive proper training to handle pesticides as required by law and industry regulations.

Of the workers surveyed who used pesticides for work, 64 percent said they did not receive any safety training.

Miguel Bernal, a nursery plant worker and member of WeCount, told WLRN when he worked with pesticides, his employer instructed him to lie and say he had proper training if an inspector visited the nursery.

“She told me to spray, but to not tell them that she told me to do it,” he said.

Other workers who didn’t handle pesticides said they were still exposed because spraying would happen in close proximity to where they were working, according to the surveys. Sixty two percent of the workers reported symptoms of pesticide exposure—dizziness, vomiting and skin rashes.

Nora, one of the women who responded to the survey, described symptoms of pesticide poisoning after another worker was allowed to spray near where she and several other people were working. He had practically sprayed it in our faces, she said. Nora ended up in the hospital shortly after.

“They put me in a shower to get all the chemicals off me,” she reported. “I kept falling down. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t, my body got weaker…I felt like my throat was awful, as if it were cut on the inside.”

Miami-Dade County is consistently ranked as one of the most unaffordable metro areas in the country when it comes to housing. That reality is especially stark for farmwokers. According to the people surveyed, most earn the Florida minimum wage of $8.05 or slightly above.

A smaller percentage of workers reported earning less than minimum wage.

As is the case in most other industries, there is a pay gap for women. On average women earn 36 cents less than men. Workers also reported a pay gap for speakers of indigenous Mayan languages. Speakers of Mayan languages earned 34 cents less on average than Spanish and English speakers.

And across the industry, workers reported little room for economic advancement. Workers with more than 15 years of experience working in South Dade ornamental plant nurseries earned about 45 cents more than someone with one year of experience, according to the study.

WLRN intern Aaron Sanchez-Guerra contributed to this report. 

This Year’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ Produce Named Worst for Pesticide Exposure – and ‘Clean 15’


April 12, 2016 | By Ashley Hayes | WebMD Health News

Strawberries claim the top spot on this year’s “Dirty Dozen” list of produce containing pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Apples, which had topped the annual list for the past five years, dropped to second. The list was released Tuesday.

Nearly all strawberry samples tested – 98% — had detectable pesticide residues, according to the advocacy group. Forty percent had residues of 10 or more pesticides, while some had residues of 17 different pesticides.

Some of those chemicals are “relatively benign,” according to the organization, but others may be linked to diseases, hormone disruption, neurological problems and reproductive or developmental damage.

“It is startling to see how heavily strawberries are contaminated with residues of hazardous pesticides,” says Sonya Lunder, EWG senior analyst, in a statement. The levels are acceptable under current regulations; Lunder called for government levels to be updated to reflect the latest research.

Avocadoes, meanwhile, topped the EWG’s “Clean Fifteen” list, of produce least likely to be tainted by pesticides.

The group bases its analysis on testing of more than 35,000 samples by the USDA and FDA. USDA washed and peeled the produce to mimic what consumers do at home.

The annual report has received criticism, with some experts saying the rankings are arbitrary and there’s no need to fear conventionally-grown produce .

The “Dirty Dozen” list has been “discredited by the scientific community,” the Alliance for Food & Farming, a nonprofit group including about 50 agricultural associations, commodity groups and individual growers and shippers, in a statement Tuesday.

The EWG bases its report on the USDA Pesticide Data Program report, the Alliance for Food & Farming says, but the USDA has said those findings “pose no safety concern.”

Before a pesticide can be used, the EPA must determine “that it will not pose unreasonable risks to human health or the environment.”

For its part, the EWG says on its website it “always recommends eating fruits and vegetables, even conventionally grown, over processed foods and other less healthy alternatives.”

The 2016 Dirty Dozen list:
1. Strawberries
2. Apples
3. Nectarines
4. Peaches
5. Celery
6. Grapes
7. Cherries
8. Spinach
9. Tomatoes
10. Sweet bell peppers
11. Cherry tomatoes
12. Cucumbers

Also of note, according to the EWG, are leafy greens such as kale or collard greens and hot peppers. While those foods did not meet traditional ranking criteria for the Dirty Dozen list, they are “frequently found to be contaminated with insecticides toxic to the human nervous system,” according to the report.

The 2016 Clean Fifteen:
1. Avocados
2. Sweet corn
3. Pineapples
4. Cabbage
5. Frozen sweet peas
6. Onions
7. Asparagus
8. Mangoes
9. Papayas
10. Kiwi
11. Eggplant
12. Honeydew melon
13. Grapefruit
14. Cantaloupe
15. Cauliflower




New Study Suggests Even the Toughest Pesticide Regulations Aren’t Nearly Tough Enough

As in most states, regulators in California measure the effect of only one pesticide at a time. But farmers often use several pesticides together—and that’s a big, toxic problem.

“Acting together, these effects multiply. So even pesticides that don’t cause cancer on their own might do so together by interfering with or overwhelming the body’s ability to clear toxic substances, or harming DNA and then blocking mechanisms to repair it.”

February 23, 2016 | by Liza Gross | The Nation

California officials have long touted their pesticide regulations as the toughest in the nation. But a new report from the University of California, Los Angeles, reveals a major flaw in the state’s approach to evaluating safety, one that has broad implications for the way pesticides are regulated nationally: Regulators assess pesticide safety one product at a time, but growers often apply pesticides as mixtures. That’s a serious problem, the authors argue, because pesticide interactions can ratchet up toxic effects, greatly enhancing the risk of cancer and other serious health conditions.

“The federal EPA and California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) have not adequately dealt with interactive effects,” says John Froines, a report coauthor and a chemist with decades of experience assessing health risks of toxic chemicals as a scientist and regulator. “People are exposed to a large number of chemicals. You can’t simply look chemical by chemical to adequately address the toxicity of these compounds.”

Fumigants, used to combat a range of pests and diseases, are among the most toxic chemicals used in agriculture. They are a staple of high-value crops like tomatoes and strawberries. Studies in humans and animals have linked them to acute respiratory and skin damage and serious chronic health problems, including cancer and neurological and reproductive disorders.

To get around the state’s failure to collect data on cumulative exposures to these fumigants, Froines and his colleagues drew on what’s known about the chemical and biological properties of three of the most heavily used fumigants in California: chloropicrin, Telone (the trade name for 1,3-dichloropropene), and metam sodium.

Individual fumigants are highly reactive chemicals that damage DNA and interfere with proteins that perform critical cell functions. Acting together, these effects multiply. So even pesticides that don’t cause cancer on their own might do so together by interfering with or overwhelming the body’s ability to clear toxic substances, or harming DNA and then blocking mechanisms to repair it.

These interactive effects would not be detected in studies of individual pesticides.

Pesticide regulators are aware of the report, says California DPR spokesperson Charlotte Fadipe, but adds that the agency rarely comments on such studies because “the information often lacks the extensive rigorous science for a regulatory department to make regulations.” What’s more, she notes, “DPR has the most protective and robust pesticide program in the country.”

Froines, who served as director of the Office of Toxic Substances at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Jimmy Carter and has led several scientific review panels at the state’s request to assess chemical toxicity, has revealed flaws in pesticide regulations before. In 2010, he headed a California scientific review panel that deemed chloropicrin—one of the fumigants studied in the current report—a “potent carcinogen.” State officials ignored the panel’s advice and decided the evidence was ambiguous. The same year, he chaired another review panel that called the fumigant methyl iodide a “highly toxic chemical” that poses a serious threat to public health. This time, manufacturers withdrew the product from the market.

With few restrictions on combining pesticides, growers often use multiple-chemical formulations or apply different fumigants to adjoining fields or in close succession. That exposes people who live, work, and go to school near these fields to several fumigants at once, despite growing evidence that these chemical concoctions pose even greater health risks.

As reported by the Food & Environment Reporting Network and The Nation last April, residents of Oxnard, a strawberry-growing stronghold in Southern California where most residents are Latino, had worried for years about the risks of heavy exposure to fumigants.

Rio Mesa High School students were twice as likely as white kids to go to schools near heavy fumigant use. And though regulators admitted as much in addressing a complaint filed by several parents, they did little to restrict fumigant use near schools. In fact, the year after EPA officials dismissed the families’ complaint, growers dramatically increased their use of toxic fumigants around Rio Mesa.

Less than a month after the Nation story ran, the Department of Pesticide Regulation announced it would revisit restrictions on pesticide use near schools after seeking public input through statewide workshops. Officials promised to deliver new rules last December, then pushed back the date, saying they hadn’t reviewed all the public comments. DPR spokesperson Fadipe says they’re still working on draft regulations but can’t say for sure when they’ll issue the draft rules.

The UCLA report shows that going to school at Rio Mesa still poses a health risk. The authors used standard EPA air dispersion models and pesticide use data collected by state regulators to simulate likely fumigant dispersion patterns around the school. They chose Rio Mesa in part because an on-site air monitor shows that fumigants are escaping into the air. As expected, their modeling results show that overlapping exposures occur at Rio Mesa—two years after EPA dismissed community concerns—and at other locations, including schools and daycare centers.

These results underscore the importance of establishing no-spray zones around schools and other sensitive sites as soon as possible, activists say.

“This new report on fumigants is a stark reminder that regulatory agencies have largely failed to regulate toxic chemicals,” says Bruce Lanphear, professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University and an expert on the impacts of toxic exposures on the developing brain who was not involved in the report. “We are all exposed to a cocktail of dozens, if not hundreds of chemicals, which can have similar detoxification mechanisms and modes of action.”

Regulators must consider synergistic effects of pesticides in risk assessments, the authors say. They contend that a California law requires state agencies to consider cumulative impacts and that interactive effects from pesticides fall under that law. They urge state officials to make several changes to pesticide regulations to uphold their mission to protect public health.


EPA’s New Farmworker Pesticide Standards Leave Unanswered Questions

“Of the 35,500 farms in New York alone – only 22 were inspected last fiscal year (NYSDEC) – 14 received violations – 6 received warnings with no fines?”

A. Steiner


EPA_FarmworkerNovember 19, 2015 |

Raucous laughter fills a small communal kitchen as ten men shout and joke with each other in Spanish after a long day of picking apples on an orchard in Orleans County in Western New York.

They’re playing a game of charades. But instead of pantomiming movie titles or celebrities, the men are acting out symptoms of acute pesticide exposure, which include things like rashes, headaches, vomiting, and eye irritation.

The game is part of a training put on by the Worker Justice Center—a labor advocacy group—to teach workers about pesticide safety and their rights. In person trainings like these will soon be more frequent on farms, now that the EPA has released updated standards for farmworker protection that include requirements for annual training. The update—announced this fall—is the first time the agency has changed its Worker Protection Standards in 23 years.

Part 1: 

Part 2: 

Regulators and farmworker advocates say the changes to these standards are overdue, but some groups representing farmers object to the change. Both sides see challenges ahead for implementing and enforcing the standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that each year there are 10,000 to 20,000 incidents of pesticide poisoning for people work on farms, nurseries, and commercial forest land. Advocacy groups say there may be many more. In addition to symptoms caused by acute exposure, the EPA is concerned that repeated, low level exposure to pesticides may have long-term health effects.

When new regulations kick in early 2017, farmers will be required comply with tightened safety measures.  The updated standards include measures such as expanded requirements for no-entry zones to protect  workers from pesticide overspray, expanded access to information about pesticides, changes to personal protection equipment standards, a minimum age requirement for working with pesticides (no children under 18), and more.

Training is key to safety

One of the biggest changes is the mandatory annual training—it used to be required every five years. Paola Betchart of the Worker Justice Center explains pesticide exposure is preventable if you know how to protect yourself. The new regulations expand the types of the things workers must learn in training, including instructions to reduce pesticides on work clothing that may come home with them at the end of the work day.

The new standards require an EPA-trained certified trainer to stay in the room after playing training videos to ask and answer questions. This is key, says Betchart.

“The quality of the training is important, because if they just see one video that is very old, some of them they don’t get all the full information,” she says.

National farm industry representatives don’t believe annual trainings are needed, especially if workers passed training exams in the past. “To me, that seems to be a bit wasteful,” says Daren Coppock, President and CEO of the Agricultural Retailers Association.

He sees it as just another rule that state and federal governments impose on agriculture, straining their businesses in many small ways, what he calls a “death by a thousand cuts.”

But says Judith Enck, EPA administrator for the region that includes New York State, the EPA wants to ensure safety information is top of mind for farmworkers. “Five years is just far too long to remember vital information,” Enck says.

The risk of speaking up

At their recent training, the group of New York apple pickers said they’ve had symptoms, but aren’t sure if they were from allergies or pesticides. Sometimes, they’re similar. And they didn’t know where to find out which chemicals were used in their fields and what their effects were. (Current EPA standards require that information be available to them.)

An apple picker named Isabel (we’ve agreed to call her by her first name), recalls a time she and a group of coworkers noticed sprayers working about ten rows away. She says they felt droplets of pesticides sprinkling down on them and later experienced nausea and headaches, but were told the substance wasn’t toxic.

But when training or other safety measures are inadequate, it can be hard for farmworkers to do anything about it, for fear of risking their jobs.

“We’re afraid that if we speak out, if we say that they treat us poorly, they won’t bring us back to the farm,” said one man, named Juan who we’ve agreed to only call by his first name.

EPA’s Enck says one goal of the updated standards is to protect against retaliation for whistleblowers.

“You and I are not exposed to pesticides when we show up to work every day, neither should farmworkers. They deserve fair and equitable working conditions,” says Enck.

How do you enforce new rules?

Enforcing the EPA’s standards is a task left to state agencies. Farmworker advocates claim many states are not doing enough to make sure existing standards are enforced, let alone regulate the new ones.

But agricultural industry groups claim farmers already comply with the law which requires them to follow the instructions on the pesticide’s label.

“I’m not sure that a duplicative layer of regulations makes anybody safer. It does increase the paperwork burden,” says Coppock.

In New York, where there are 35,500 farms, inspections are done by the Department of Environmental Conservation. In the last fiscal year, the department conducted 22 inspections, found 14 violations, and issued 6 warnings and no fines.

In contrast, California, a state with 76.400 farms, has some of the strictest rules in the country governing pesticides and how they can be used. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation conducts approximately 9,500 field inspections each year.

Charlotte Fadipe, spokesperson for this California agency calls enforcement critical. “Farming, to us, is an outdoor factory, and it does not make sense to have that factory unsafe,” she says. “We want to make sure that the workers are safe so we put in place some very, very tough regulations. People sometimes complain that they’re too tough, but for us it’s about protecting the people who grow our food.”

Missing data

Farming industry representatives say the EPA doesn’t have enough data to make a case to justify more stringent regulation of pesticide use.

Farmworker advocates agree more data is needed. But it would likely show the need for these regulations and strong enforcement of them, says Amy Liebman, Director of Environmental and Occupational Health for Migrant Clinicians Network.

“We would be able to collect more data if we had the following: One, if we had medical monitoring for pesticide applicators. Two, if we had a national system of reporting and it was a requirement, and three is we would like for clinicians to have more tests available to them.”

Still Liebman, who worked on a committee that helped advise the EPA on its updated standards, says they are a step in the right direction. “One of the goals that farmworker advocates have is to make sure at the very least, farmworkers are provided protections that are provided to all other workers in other industries,” she says.


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