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Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Economic and environmental cost of Trump’s auto rollback could be staggering, new research shows

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

The Trump administration’s plan to freeze fuel efficiency standards in defiance of California’s stricter, more environmentally friendly rules is set to have dire ramifications for emissions levels and the economy, according to new research out Wednesday.

Rolling back California’s robust vehicle emissions requirements will cost the U.S. economy $400 billion through 2050, an analysis from the environmental policy group Energy Innovation found. President Donald Trump’s efforts to undo Obama-era rules will also increase U.S. gasoline consumption by up to 7.6 billion barrels, subsequently increasing U.S. transport emissions up to 10% by 2035.

Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have been engaged in a bitter feud with California over emissions standards.

California has set its own standards for decades under the Clean Air Act’s Section 177 through an EPA waiver, with significant success: 14 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the same standards. Data shows that those “Section 177 states” — which represent more than 35% of the U.S. auto market — have reduced pollution and improved air quality, improving both public health and the environment.

But the Trump administration has targeted California’s waiver, arguing in favor of freezing fuel efficiency standards on new vehicles through 2025 nationally while stripping the state of its exemption. The government is also embroiled in litigation with the Section 177 states, which are fighting to keep their standards.

As California and the White House escalate their feud, Energy Innovation’s new modeling gives a preview of what the Trump administration’s plans would mean long-term.

“Freezing federal fuel economy and [greenhouse gas] emissions standards will harm U.S. consumers, who will pay more money to drive their cars the same distance,” the Energy Innovation report warns, pointing to both economic implications and likely associated climate impacts and poorer air quality.

“The only winners are the oil companies, who stand to sell more gasoline at the expense of American consumers, manufacturers, and the environment,” the group underscores.

Initially, the firm found that there would be economy-wide financial gains, as low-efficiency cars are cheaper to make. But over the years, increasing fuel expenses are projected to cut into those gains, ultimately costing the national economy hundreds of billions.

Using the open-sourced and peer-reviewed Energy Policy Simulator (EPS), the group looked at the economic impact of freezing the standards nationally and revoking California’s waiver, in addition to a scenario in which California retains its waiver following litigation but the rest of the country is held to the frozen standard.

In the first scenario, the economic cost by 2050 is projected to be $400 billion.

The second scenario is more uncertain. However, the report estimates it would affect around 65% of vehicle sales and could create a split market — one where automakers sell more efficient vehicles in Section 177 states and less efficient vehicles elsewhere.

Energy Innovation estimates that scenario would cost between $240 billion and $400 billion by mid-century. Costs on the lower end reflect a situation in which carmakers in non-Section 177 states would still largely comply with California’s standards, while those on the higher end reflect a split market possibility.

In addition to the economic costs, the report also underscores the climate implications. While the growing market for electric vehicles would mitigate climate impacts beginning in the 2040s, Energy Innovation finds that vehicle emissions would spike to their highest point in the 2030s based on current trends.

Under current policy, “transportation sector emissions are projected to be 1,370 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)” by 2035, the report notes. But with a nationwide freeze, emissions would increase to 1,510 MMT in 2035 — a 10% increase. If Section 177 states retain their autonomy, that increase would fall between 1,460 and 1,510 MMT.

The report’s authors clarify that all estimates should be viewed as somewhat conservative, however, given that they assume a trend towards purchasing electric vehicles — meaning the actual emissions impact could be much larger.

Energy Innovation policy analyst and report author Megan Mahajan told ThinkProgress that the overall result of a freeze would be rising emissions and increasing costs.

“Although the current administration argues the standards freeze is in Americans’ best interest, we find that it hurts consumers and the climate,” Mahajan said. “Our results show that the economic impacts to consumers will only grow over time as they continue to lose out on the significant fuel savings that come with stronger standards.”

The report also focuses on the international implications of the proposed freeze. Due to the Canada-California fuel economy memorandum of understanding, impacts associated with the move will be felt across the border. Canada’s auto market is closely tied with the United States and the country has indicated it will likely side with California in a split market scenario.

But if that doesn’t happen and Canada follows the U.S. federal freeze, Energy Innovation predicts the move could cost Canadian consumers up to $67 billion through 2050. It could also increase Canadian transport emissions up to 11% by 2035.

“In addition to hurting U.S. consumers, a fuel economy and… emissions standards freeze would have global implications,” the report argues.

Energy Innovation’s findings are only the latest to counter the Trump administration’s push for the freeze. Even the auto industry has expressed deep reservations. Many carmakers had already incorporated the emissions standards into their products, along with Obama-era efficiency efforts. The sudden change could cost companies, and some have made efforts to insulate themselves from any shifts in policy.

At the end of July, California inked a deal with Ford, BMW, Honda, and Volkswagen, with all four major carmakers pledging fuel-efficient cars. At the time, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) linked the deal to broader efforts to combat global warming.

“Clean air emissions standards … are perhaps the most significant thing this state can do, and this nation can do, to advance those goals,” the governor said. “The Trump administration is hellbent on rolling them back. They are in complete denialism about climate change.”

But the standoff between California and the White House is only set to escalate. Last Friday, the EPA and NHTSA sent the final proposed rule to the White House for review.

That same day, California and New York led a group of states in suing NHTSA, which has reduced the penalties facing automakers who fail to meet Obama-era corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. Under Trump, the penalty has been reduced from $14 to $5.50 per tenth of a mile per gallon.

And on Tuesday, 30 Senate Democrats encouraged 14 major automakers to join the four companies that have already made a deal on emissions with California.

“In the absence of an agreement between the Federal government and states, the California agreement is a commonsense framework that provides flexibility to the industry to meet tailpipe standards while also taking important steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save money on fuel for consumers,” the senators wrote in a letter to the companies, which include Nissan, Toyota, and Volvo.

The letter was signed by several presidential candidates, including frontrunners Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kamala Harris (D-CA).

This article was originally published at Think Progress on August 7, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. (Ev) Crunden covers climate policy and environmental issues at ThinkProgress. Originally from Texas, Ev has reported from many parts of the country and previously covered world issues for Muftah Magazine, with an emphasis on South Asia and Eastern Europe. Reach them at: ecrunden@thinkprogress.org.

How Unions and Climate Organizers Learned To Work Together in New York

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

Rachel CohenSeveral years before Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) elevated the climate, jobs and justice framework to the national level, a coalition of labor, environmental and community groups joined together to push for a pioneering climate bill in New York.

The idea for the legislation came in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 People’s Climate March, when organizers decided to build on the momentum of the historic demonstration. In 2016 the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) was born, an expansive bill that would require New York to generate half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The bill would also mandate that 40 percent of New York’s climate funding go towards projects in low-income, vulnerable communities, and require all green projects to have high labor standards, including the requirement for a prevailing wage.

“It’s among the most aggressive decarbonization proposals in the nation,” said Arielle Swernoff, the communications coordinator for New York Renews, a coalition of over 170 state groups backing the legislation. “The only state that has really done something comparable is Hawaii.”

New York Renews offers an encouraging example of how labor and environmental groups can work together to act on climate change. The coalition has the backing of unions like 32BJ Service Employees International Union—a property service workers union, the New York State Nurses Association, the New York State Amalgamated Transit Union, Teamsters Joint Council 16 and the Communications Workers of America Local 1108. It also has the support of a vast number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Environmental Advocates of New York and GreenFaith.

The bill’s strong language around labor—such as requiring that government contracts include mechanisms for resolving disputes and ensuring labor harmony—has helped quell opposition from building trade unions that typically fight robust climate proposals. The New York AFL-CIO, a labor federation representing 3,000 state affiliates, has notably stayed quiet on the bill.

Nella Pineda-Marcon, the chair of the Climate Justice and Disaster Relief committee with the New York State Nurses Association, told In These Times that it was an easy decision for her union to back the CCPA. Her union, which represents 43,000 nurses statewide, got very involved with the climate crisis following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The following year, Pineda-Marcon traveled to the Philippines as a first-responder to Typhoon Haiyan. “We are on the front lines of this crisis, we see first-hand the destruction it has,” she explained. “And the massive amounts of pollutants in our air are driving up rates of chronic asthma in our most vulnerable communities… We need to lead now and the rest of the world can follow us.”

The politics of the CCPA are coming to a head as the deadline for passage ends June 19. The bill passed the state Assembly in 2016, 2017 and 2018 — and last year a majority of state senators signed on in support. But the Senate Leader never allowed it to come to the floor for a vote. After the 2018 midterms, however, when progressive Democrats ousted a group of centrists who often caucused with Republicans, advocates felt the stars were aligning more favorably for the CCPA’s passage this year.

Indeed, in January the new Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins released a statement calling the CCPA “the main vehicle through which we will address climate change.” The state senate held its first-ever hearing on climate change in February, led by Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D), the new Environmental Conservation Committee chairman.

Various scientists testified, including Mathias Vuille, a professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at the University of Albany and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Vuille explained that the most significant impact resulting from a changing climate in New York so far has been the rise of intense storms, which have increased in frequency in the Northeast more than any other region in the United States. Sea levels along the mid-Atlantic and New England coasts have also risen much higher than the global average, he said, pointing to a rise in New York sea levels by 280 millimeters over the 20th century, compared to a global average increase of 170 millimeters.

While Vuille cautioned that he’s neither a renewable energy specialist nor an economist, he said “we owe it to future generations” to continue leading the transition off fossil fuels, and emphasized a need to reduce emissions in the transportation sector in particular. “I think this can be done if we really have the will,” he said.

Some labor advocates, like Mike Gendron, the executive vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 1108, also testified in support of the CCPA. “As we transition from fossil fuel based energy to renewable energy, we must make sure that the jobs created, are good paying union jobs with proper training, for both new workers and transitioning workers,” he said. “The New York State Climate and Community Protection Act will help make that happen.”

Other unions offered more qualified support, endorsing specific sections of the legislation. Ellen Redmond, representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), testified that her union does in fact believe the CCPA contains commendable language around workers’ rights. “We do believe the labor protections are strong,” she said, though suggested it could be even better if there were more teeth and real dollars behind it. IBEW represents about 50,000 members in New York, many of whom work in the utilities industry.

Mark Brueggenjohann, a spokesperson for the IBEW, told In These Times that his union didn’t have anything new to add to Redmond’s February testimony and doesn’t “anticipate any further statements” this month.

State senators also heard from industry groups that raised concerns, like Mitch Paley, testifying on behalf of the New York State Builders Association. Paley said while his colleagues support some aspects of the CCPA, they object to the prevailing wage requirements which would, by their own estimate, increase residential projects by 35 to 45%. The mandated solar requirements for new homes, he added, could increase the cost of each project by $10,000. This would “dramatically affect the ability to promote affordable homes in our region,” he argued.

Darren Suarez, the senior director of government affairs for the Business Council of New York State testified against the bill, arguing that the proposed legislation would “increase energy costs, operational costs, and create uncertainty, compromising the global competitiveness of energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries.” He insisted the bill’s goals are not practical, and that the manufacturing sector should be included in developing the state’s climate policies.

A study by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst found that New York transitioning to a 100 percent renewable economy could support 160,000 direct and indirect jobs initially and an average of about 150,000 in each year over the first decade. The institute also estimates that New York’s fossil fuel workforce is relatively small, comprised of roughly 13,000 individuals, out of a statewide workforce of around 9 million.

A threatening factor for CCPA supporters is that the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has introduced his own more moderate climate bill—the Climate Leadership Act. His legislation calls for the electricity sector to be carbon-free by 2040, but does not lay out a concrete plan for other sectors that emit greenhouse gas, like transportation. The two bills are dividing Democrats in Albany. Advocates for CCPA say Cuomo’s bill does not go far enough, and it’s imperative to legislate specific climate goals, so they are not “at the whim of the executive” anymore.

Swernoff of New York Renews says the governor’s office has expressed discomfort specifically with the prevailing wage standard for all green projects, the 40% investment into vulnerable and low-income communities, and setting a timeline for the whole economy, as opposed to just for electricity.

New York federal legislators are ramping up pressure on state lawmakers to pass the CCPA. On June 4, eleven Congressional representativesfrom New York, including Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez, sent a letter in support of the bill. “We believe the people-led Climate and Community Protection Act before you in Albany presents…an opportunity for New York,” they wrote. “An opportunity to cure the injustices of the past and to secure, with intent, a just transition into the future.” On June 5, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand sent her own letter in support of the bill.

Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, a steering committee member of New York Renews and the New York affiliate of Jobs with Justice, said she knows lawmakers are taking the CCPA very seriously right now, and she’s “hopeful this year its passage will become a reality.”

When it comes to the governor signing the bill, Silva-Farrell says she is less sure. “You never know where he’s going to be on an issue,” she said. “But one thing that is very clear is that if he wants to leave a strong legacy for his family, for his kids, and his grandkids, he should get behind this.”

This article was originally published by In These Times on June 10, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington D.C. Follow her on Twitter @rmc031

Groups Petition OSHA to Issue Heat Standard

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

Peggy Frank, a 63-year-old California postal worker — and also a mother and grandmother — died last week while working her usual route in unusually hot weather. Frank’s heat-related death was not a freak occurrence, nor was it unusual.

“An average of more than 2.2 million workers in the agriculture or construction industries worked in extreme heat each day,” according to according to a report released yesterday by Public Citizen, in support of a petition by more than 130 organizations for an OSHA heat standard.  High heat — and especially working in high heat — can cause serious heat-related illnesses and death. It can also worsen other conditions such as heart disease and asthma.

The report cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics which concludes that “exposure to excessive environmental heat stress killed 783 U.S. workers and seriously injured 69,374 workers from 1992 through 2016,” and these numbers are probably significantly underestimated because many heat-related deaths are registered as heart attacks. Construction workers and farm workers are the occupations most at risk.

Although it seems hard to believe, almost 50 years after OSHA was created, the agency still has no occupational heat standard. High heat has been plaguing workers for a long, long time — pretty much since God said “Let there be light.” We’ve known about the hazards of heat stroke and how to prevent them for a long time as well.

And, of course, the problem has gotten much worse since the beginning of time. The groups petitioning OSHA — which include Public Citizen, Farmworker Justice, Interfaith Worker Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, United Farm Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers Union and several other labor unions —  tied the need for an OSHA heat standard to global warming which is significantly increasing the risk to workers. The petition noted that

Global warming is resulting in more frequent days of extreme heat, and record-breaking summers are now becoming the norm. 2017 was the second-hottest year on record, surpassed only by 2016. Indeed, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001…. Record-setting years will be common in the coming decades, as temperatures are projected to increase by 2.5°F (1.4°C) for the period 2021–2050 relative to 1976–2005 even if we aggressively reduce greenhouse gas pollution worldwide.

Groups Petition OSHA For A Heat Standard

Yesterday, more than 130 organizations announced a petition to OSHA for a heat standard that would protect workers from the hazards of high heat.  Joining the press conference were former OSHA Directors Dr. Eula Bingham and Dr. David Michaels as well as former California/OSHA Director Ellen Widess. The press conference, which included the passionate statement of a man whose brother died of heat exposure, can be heard here.

Federal OSHA, which concluded that extreme heat was a factor in the deaths of at least six workers in 2017, has been concerned about the problem for many years. The agency launched a national heat education campaign in 2012, following successful efforts to prevent heat-related deaths among workers cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico.  OSHA borrowed CalOSHA’s  their “Water, Rest, Shade” campaign and developed a cell-phone heat app, that would analyze the hazards of heat for workers in their geographical area, and recommend measures to protect themselves. (Available from the Apple Store or from Google Play.)  OSHA also increased enforcement under its General Duty Clause, which the agency uses when there is no standard. But, according to former OSHA head David Michaels, the Obama administration declined to launch rulemaking for a heat standard due to lack of time and resources while working on the silica, beryllium and other OSHA standards issued during the last administration.

Three OSHA state-plan states — CaliforniaWashington, and Minnesota (indoor) — have heat standards, leaving 130 million workers in the rest of the country who lack the protections of a national OSHA heat standard. The military also has strict heat standards and in 2016, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)  issued the third version of its criteria for a recommended heat standard “which includes the following elements: heat stress threshold, rest breaks, hydration, shade, heat acclimatization plan, PPE, exposure monitoring, hazard notification, worker training, medical monitoring, injury surveillance, and recordkeeping.”

The report and petition argue that federal OSHA’s current efforts and voluntary activities are not enough. The report points out that an OSHA analysis of heat-related fatality cases show that “17 of 23 fatalities (74 percent) involved workers who were in their first three days on the job, and eight (35 percent) victims were on the very first day of work,” because employer did not follow industry recommendations to allow workers to acclimatize, or get used to the heat for a few days before heavy work.

Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA), who spoke at the press conference,  promised to introduce legislation that would require OSHA to issue a heat standard.

The petition outlined a number of elements of an OSHA heat standard, which would reqiure employers to:

  1. Provide mandatory rest breaks with increased frequency in times of extreme heat and significant exertion.
  2. Provide access to shaded and otherwise cool conditions for employees to rest during breaks.
  3. Provide personal protective equipment, such as water-cooled and air-cooled garments.
  4. Make provisions for adequate hydration.
  5. Implement heat acclimatization plans to help new workers safely adjust to hot conditions.
  6. Regularly monitor both the environmental heat load and employees’ metabolic heat loads during hot conditions.
  7. Medically monitor at-risk employees.
  8. Notify employees of heat stress hazards.
  9. Institute a heat-alert plan outlining procedures to follow when heat waves are forecast.
  10. Train workers on heat stress risks and preventive measures.
  11. Maintain and report records relating to this standard.
  12. Institute whistleblower protection programs to ensure that employees who witness violations of the heat stress safety standard are free to speak up.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on July 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

People’s Budget Puts Forward An Aggressive Plan To Green Our Economy

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

Isaiah J. Poole

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus will formally unveil their fiscal 2017 People’s Budget on Tuesday, and when they do one of the key features they will tout is an aggressive plan to shift the country to a green energy future.

“Climate change is no longer just a problem for a future generation — it is here today,” the budget document says, adding that the nation needs “to take bold action to fight climate change and invest in a clean-energy economy that supports green jobs with good wages.”

The policies embodied in the People’s Budget closely track the policies that the Campaign for America’s Future, along with partners National People’s Action, Alliance for a Just Society and USAction, called for in their progressive policy platform last year. The budget even echoes the platform language: “Catastrophic climate change is a clear and present danger. The United States should lead the global green revolution that builds strong and resilient communities.”

The People’s Budget would impose a tax on carbon polluters that would start at $25 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions and increase at a rate of 5.6 percent a year. Much of the money raised from that tax would be used to fund a range of renewable energy initiatives and to help low-income individuals cope with any increases in their energy bills that might result from the combination of the carbon tax and the switch to renewables.

This carbon tax would, according to the Energy Information Administration, lead to the U.S. cutting its carbon emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels within five years. That would be a significant contribution toward the United States’ pledges during the Paris climate talks last year to help limit global warming to no more than 3 degrees Celsius (about 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and preferably much lower.

The budget would also eliminate about $135 billion in fossil fuel subsidies over 10 years. These tax expenditures, combined with other loopholes fossil fuel companies typically exploit, enable these companies to pay a tax rate that is on average only about 11 percent of their profits, according to one study by the conservative-leaning Taxpayers for Common Sense. By shutting down these subsidies, the People’s Budget is able to pour resources into helping communities protect themselves from the consequences of climate change that are already beginning to unfold.

Lukas Ross of Friends of the Earth called the People’s Budget “the greenest option in Washington” in a post on DailyKos. Ross noted that in addition to what the budget proposes to do that is directly related to climate change, it includes $12 billion to cover the public financing of elections. That’s important to the environmental movement because so far this election season, “Big Oil has already poured over $13 million into Congressional races and over $100 million into the presidency. Climate solutions require politicians who aren’t beholden to Big Oil, and even though public financing can’t guarantee direct climate results, it can guarantee a more level playing field for candidates not drowning in oil money.”

The People’s Budget is a comprehensive road map for economic reform that will stand in sharp contrast to what Republican congressional leaders will propose this week as they launch their own 2017 budget debates. As the National Priorities Project outlines, the budget “includes a $1 trillion in much-needed investment in our national infrastructure …. fully funds Early Head Start, giving kids a strong start early in life, and adopts the president’s proposals for universal preschool … provide[s] federal matching funds to states so that students could go to college debt-free … does away with the Pentagon slush fund after fiscal year 2017 (Overseas Contingency Operations), saving $761 billion over ten years … [and] If you earn a billion dollars or more each year … the People’s Budget would assign you a tax rate of 49 percent [that] is still lower than the highest individual tax rate during most of the presidency of conservative hero President Ronald Reagan.”

The budget also serves as a standard for what a presidential or congressional candidate should be willing to embrace in order to earn progressive support. In that regard, a coalition of grassroots organizations are telling Democratic house members that their vote on the People’s Budget, expected the week of March 21, will be a key vote in weighing their support.

To declare yourself a citizen co-sponsor of the People’s Budget, and to show Congress that the ideas in the People’s Budget have broad support, sign this petition that will be delivered to Congress when the House begins floor debate.

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on March 14, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Isaiah J. Poole worked at Campaign for America’s Future. He attended Pennsylvania State University and lives in Washington, DC.

Pesticide Threat Looms Large Over Farmworker Families

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

No matter how good your next meal tastes, it’s likely it made society ill.

A new analysis by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN) draws a disturbing connection between pesticides in our food system and serious health problems among women and children. The report reviews empirical research linking agricultural chemicals to birth defects, neurological disorders, childhood cancers and reproductive problems.

Some of these chemicals make their way into the foods we eat, but they are more acutely concentrated in the environments surrounding farmlands. Children in or near farming areas can be exposed through myriad channels, from contaminated soil to the air in playgrounds.

But children in farmworker communities are especially at risk. While the report confirms the growing public concerns about health risks permeating our food chain, it also shows how socioeconomic inequalities can shovel many of the worst effects onto exploited, impoverished workers.

There’s been much public debate over the importance of organic produce, sustainable farming and regulating genetically modified foods–usually spurred by concerns over consumer health or animal rights. We hear less about the safety concerns that affect the workers who handle our fruits and vegetables before anyone else. For many Latino migrant workers, there’s no equivalent of a comprehensive safety label–no option to avoid the ubiquitous poisons in the field. Many worry that to complain about working conditions would mean being fired. Others simply–and quite reasonably–have little faith in the anemic government regulatory systems.

PAN cites research showing that pesticide injuries are prevalent among agricultural workers. Various studies cited in the report also suggest an epidemic of chemical “drift” from fields into nearby homes and neighborhoods. According to a 2009 report by the advocacy groups Earth Justice and Farmworker Justice (FWJ), “a growing number of epidemiological studies link pesticide drift to specific adverse health effects in humans, including autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”

While the problem is politically invisible, the effects are all too apparent. The PAN report describes the experience of Ana Duncan Pardo, a community health activist in North Carolina, who had a jarring encounter with farmworker families:

Within five minutes I had noted multiple cleft palates and several children with apparent Down Syndrome…. It was shocking and disturbing to walk into a room with a group of parents and children that easily represented three to four times the national average for birth defects.

The effect is likely compounded by the widespread use of child labor in agriculture–children barely in their teens can legally work on farms. That puts kids in daily contact with toxins that could irreparably harm their brains and bodies.

A FWJ briefing paper points to a history of vast dissonance between the federal regulation of harmful pesticides for heavily exposed workers, and parallel standards for the general public. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act establishes public health-based safety protections, for example, but environmental advocates point out that farmworker families’ health vulnerabilities are neglected and essentially ignored in regulatory assessments of the social costs of industrial pesticide use.

Children of farmworker families are left with far weaker protections despite their special vulnerability. Despite some restrictions on child workers handling pesticides, according to FWJ, “Children under 16 can still handle Category III or IV pesticides even though the chronic hazards associated with these chemicals include ‘potential neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenic effects.’”

Even if they don’t work in the fields, the children of farmworkers are not necessarily safe in their own homes. Virginia Ruiz, FWJ’s director of Occupational & Environmental Health, explains that farmworkers working with pesticides carry “take-home residues” on their clothes and skin. While safety warnings recommend avoiding physical contact with contaminated workers, Ruiz says, “It’s sort of unrealistic expectation of people to refrain from hugging their children and other family members as soon as they get home.”

The PAN analysis urges consumers and parents to take action for stronger safety protections. These could include mandates to phase harmful pesticides out of the market, and promoting pesticide-free school lunches and playgrounds.

Nonetheless, the battle against the pesticide threats on farms can’t be limited to the consumer end of the food chain. Farmworkers need to be engaged as stakeholders in pursuing just solutions to the unique risks posed to their communities. Farmworkers have played a leading role pushing for tighter EPA regulations as well as grassroots efforts to mobilize communities against pesticide drift. For example, a community-driven campaign in California’s Central Valley led to the creation of buffer zones to keep pesticide contamination away from sensitive locations like schools, farmworker camps and residential areas.

Kristin Schafer, coauthor of PAN’s report, tells Working In These Times, “Farmworker families were essential to the success of these efforts–some working behind the scenes, others speaking out to demand protections for their families.” She adds that environmental monitoring projects in other farmworker communities have provided opportunities for laborers “to document pesticide drift from neighboring fields, and use [this] as scientific evidence to advance these protections.” Community activists are now pressing California’s regulatory authorities to transition farms away from pesticides and toward greener alternatives.

Still, in every policy debate, farmworker families will face tremendous barriers of race, language ability, political disenfranchisement and poverty. Those aren’t chemical threats, but they constitute the climate of oppression that blankets the nation’s farms, and that corrosive cloud is now drifting into all our communities.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 20, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen@inthesetimes.com.

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