Just before Memorial Day—the kickoff of the summer season—the Obama Administration released its agenda for upcoming regulatory action. In the worker safety world of OSHA, “regulatory action” rarely means a new regulation. Rather, it refers to a step along the long, drawn-out process to (maybe) a new rule to protect workers from occupational injuries, illnesses or deaths.
The items identified by the Labor Department suggested that OSHA planned a productive summer of 2014. Here’s what OSHA outlined for its summer tasks.
In May 2014:
- Convene a meeting of small business representatives to review a draft proposed regulation to better protect workers employed in healthcare, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and other settings from infectious diseases.
In June 2014:
- Publish a request for information from stakeholders to address the hazards faced by those who work on communication towers, in particular the risk of working at heights.
In July 2014:
- Publish a proposed rule to protect workers who are exposed to beryllium, which can cause lung cancer and chronic beryllium disease. More than two years ago, in February 2012, the world’s largest producer and supplier of beryllium AND the United Steelworkers handed OSHA the regulatory text of a proposed rule on beryllium. It was a document that the two key stakeholders had thoughtfully negotiated. They expected their effort would expedite OSHA’s work on a rule.
In August 2014:
- Publish a final rule to address confined space hazards for construction workers. In 1993, OSHA issued a confined space standard but it did not cover construction workers. The agency proposed a regulation in 2007 that would apply to the construction industry and the public comment stage of the rulemaking concluded in October 2008.
- Convene a meeting of small business representatives to review a draft proposed regulation to address the hazard of workers being struck when construction vehicles and other equipment are operating in reverse (backing up.) OSHA notes that in 2011, 75 workers were fatally injured in backing incidents.
- Publish a proposed regulation that would clarify employers’ obligation under an existing regulation to make and maintain accurate records of work-related injuries and illnesses.
- Publish a request for information from stakeholders to better protect shipyard workers from fall hazards and make existing regulations consistent with industry consensus standards.
It’s hard for me to believe that OSHA was unable to accomplish a single one of these seven tasks. I have to wonder whether something else is going on. For all I know, the agency has completed its work on some of them and tied them up with a nice red bow, but higher ups in the Obama Administration have put the brakes on them. It wouldn’t be the first time the Administration has shown its aversion to new OSHA regulations. In 2010, OSHA proposed a change to the form on which just a fraction of employers are required to record work-related injuries and illnesses. The only modification was that employers would have been required to place a check mark—-a check mark—in a column on the form to distinguish musculoskeletal disorders from other injuries, such as burns or amputations. After completing the public comment period and extra stakeholder meetings, OSHA submitted the final rule for review to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). It sat there for six months and then the Administration forced OSHA to ditch withdraw the rule. Then there was OSHA’s proposed rule on silica which was “under review” at OIRA for 2 1/2 years.
Whatever is going on—whether performance problems at OSHA or anti-regulatory obstruction higher up in the Obama Administration—OSHA set expectations of what it would accomplish over the summer months. Now Labor Day is upon us and it was a disappointing summer for progress by OSHA on new worker safety regulations.
The San Jose Mercury News has begun publishing a multi-part series on the alarming use of psychotropic medications among youth in California’s foster-care system. Karen de Sá writes:
With alarming frequency, foster and health care providers are turning to a risky but convenient remedy to control the behavior of thousands of troubled kids: numbing them with psychiatric drugs that are untested on and often not approved for children.
An investigation by this newspaper found that nearly 1 out of every 4 adolescents in California’s foster care system is receiving these drugs — 3 times the rate for all adolescents nationwide. Over the last decade, almost 15 percent of the state’s foster children of all ages were prescribed the medications, known as psychotropics, part of a national treatment trend that is only beginning to receive broad scrutiny.
The first part of the series includes interviews with former foster children who’ve experienced long-term adverse effects after having been given psychotropic drugs while in foster care. It also presents some results of the Mercury News analysis of aggregate data on pharmacy benefit claims paid by the state’s Medicaid program for foster children (covering 2004-5 2013-14). The newspaper received the data months after de Sá filed a California Public Records Act request for 10 years of claims data; negotiations as to how much more data they might receive are ongoing.
Among the findings of the Mercury News analysis: Nearly 60% of California foster children were prescribed an antipsychotic, one of the psychotropic drugs of most concern.
Antipsychotics can have serious adverse effects such as rapid weight gain and diabetes. Often, foster children are given antipsychotics not because they have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but because caregivers want to control children’s behavior. de Sá explains:
For children, the FDA has approved antipsychotics only to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe autism — serious mental health conditions found in just 1 to 2 percent of the child population. But University of Maryland professor of pharmacy and psychiatry Julie Zito has found that the drugs often are prescribed off-label to control children’s behavior.
In a rare look at diagnoses of children covered by Medi-Cal, California’s public health system, Zito found that almost one-half of the antipsychotics used were off-label and about a third were for behavior problems such as ADHD, “conduct disorder” or “oppositional defiant disorder.” Her yet-to-be-published study found that in 2009 there was an 18-fold greater use of antipsychotics on foster children than on non-foster kids receiving Medi-Cal because of their families’ income levels. These findings were presented to the FDA in April.
All too often, foster children with behavioral issues risk losing their foster placements and ending up in a worse situation. It’s understandable why a physician considering such a scenario might prescribe an antipsychotic, with the goal of helping a child achieve a stable situation. But with too few providers who can offer foster children therapy to address their underlying mental-health needs, foster children often just keep taking the drugs — and if their situations get worse, the response is often to add another medication to the regimen. The Mercury News investigation found that “12.2 percent of California foster children who received a psych drug in 2013 were prescribed two, three, four or more psychotropic medications at a time — up from 10.1 percent in 2004.”
This is not the first investigation into the prescribing of antipsychotic drugs to foster children (or children in general). Most notably, a December 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office analyzed the patterns of psychotropic-drug prescribing to foster children in selected states (Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, and Texas). The GAO found prescriptions of psychotropic drugs for children under one year old, as well as hundreds of children prescribed five or more psychotropic drugs simultaneously. Since then several states, including California, have adopted policies that give extra scrutiny to the prescription of antipsychotics to children with Medicaid coverage, or to the subset of Medicaid beneficiaries who are also in the foster-care system.
Recent progress is worth noting, but de Sá and her colleagues demonstrate how far we still have to go to assure that foster children get appropriate care for their mental-health needs, rather than being doped with cocktails of drugs that leave them sedated but at high risk of health problems. I look forward to reading the rest of the Mercury-News series as it is published, and hope it will give us a glimpse of what a better system might look like and how we can achieve it.
As Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes moves toward a 2016 presidential run, it seems he can’t talk enough about the so-called “Texas Miracle.” But upon closer inspection, it seems clear that a “miracle” based on small government, big business tax breaks and laissez-faire regulations is hardly a blessed event for Texas workers.
In an in-depth article on workplace deaths published in the Dallas Morning News, reporter James Gordon writes that Texas workers face the highest workplace death rates in the nation. In fact, Gordon notes that a Texas worker is 12 percent more likely to be killed on the job than a worker doing a similar job in another state. Gordon writes:
Forty percent of Texas’ excess death toll was among roofers, electricians and others in specialty construction trades. Such workers are sometimes treated as independent contractors, leaving them responsible for their own safety equipment and training. Many are undocumented immigrants.
Government and industry here have invested relatively little in safety equipment, training and inspections, researchers say. And Texas is one of the toughest places to organize unions, which can promote safety.
“There’s a Wild West culture here,” said University of Texas law professor Thomas McGarity, who has written several books about regulation. Texans often think, “We don’t want some nanny state telling workers how to work and, by implication, telling employers how to manage the workplace,” he said.
To compare workplace deaths in Texas to other states, the Dallas Morning News analyzed federal data between 2003 and 2012 to calculate how many deaths would be expected within each industry based on worker numbers and national fatality data. Here’s what they found:
- Texas had 4,593 deaths; the expected toll was 4,014.
- California had 1,204 fewer deaths than expected.
- Texas had the highest rate of excess deaths among the 10 biggest states.
- There were 17 states with higher rates of excess deaths. But all of them had fewer than one-fourth of Texas’ workplace deaths, which statistically skews the comparison.
- While oil and gas drilling is among the most dangerous industries in the U.S., Texas’ fatality rate in that industry was 62 percent below average. There were 49 fewer deaths than expected.
- The most excess deaths in Texas were among specialty construction trades. There were 719 such fatalities, or 242 beyond what would have been expected.
Gordon goes on to explore the contributors to the Texas workplace problem, such as no state occupational safety inspection agency and misclassifying workers as independent contractors, which means the usual wage and safety laws don’t apply. To read the full article, click here.
In other news:
The Stand: Earlier this month, the Washington State Supreme Court handed down a encouraging victory for workers, ruling that a parent company is indeed responsible for wage theft perpetrated by its subcontractors. In the article, writer Hilary Stern reports that the state supreme court unanimously ruled that Fred Meyer, a chain of superstores, could be liable to a group of janitors who weren’t paid overtime in accordance with state wage laws. Stern reports that “Justice Steve Gonzalez said that in these cases, courts can consider a variety of factors when determining joint employment such as whether the company at the top knew of wage-and-hour violations, whether it paid sufficient amounts to the subcontractor to allow for a lawful wage, and whether the subcontracting arrangement is a subterfuge or sham.’”
Mother Jones: A new report from the Economic Policy Institute finds that nearly 17 percent of restaurant workers live in poverty, with the median restaurant worker making 44 percent less than other workers. Reporter Tom Philpott writes: “The only real solution to the industry’s bottom-feeding labor practices are legislative.” (At the bottom of this article, check out Mother Jones’ fast food wage calculator, which tells you what it takes for a fast food worker to make a living wage around the country. In my neck of the woods — Austin, Texas — a fast food worker would have to work 128 hours a week.)
In These Times: In an unfortunate turn, rail workers discovered that their union leaders held secret meetings with one of the country’s biggest freight carriers and reached a deal to allow single-person train crews — a change that workers are calling a safety disaster. Reporter Alexandra Bradbury writes that the deal would be a first for a major railway and could lead the rest of the industry to follow. She reports: “The proposed pact would pull conductors off the trains, replacing several with a single ‘master conductor’ who’d drive around in a van, on-call for radio dispatch to any train that might need assistance. How many trains would one conductor cover? Four, eight? There’s no limit — like much else in the deal, it’s left to the carrier’s discretion.” For some more background on single-person train crews, read this article from Labor Notes.
The New York Times: Most of you probably saw this article, but if not, it’s a must-read. Reporter Jodi Kantor chronicles the life of Starbucks barista and single mother Jannette Navarro as she struggles to make ends meet working a low-wage job with unpredictable hours and little regard for her responsibilities outside of work. The story highlights popular retail software that employers use to meticulously create work schedules based on sales patterns, efficiency and profit trends, but doesn’t account for the basic needs of workers. Kantor writes: “Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes. …Yet those advances are injecting turbulence into parents’ routines and personal relationships, undermining efforts to expand preschool access, driving some mothers out of the work force and redistributing some of the uncertainty of doing business from corporations to families, say parents, child care providers and policy experts.” The Huffington Post reports that one day after the New York Times article, Starbucks said it would change its scheduling procedures.
The Washington Blade: Just last week, the U.S. Department of Labor issued guidance explaining that the White House will interpret an executive order on gender discrimination in the workplace as protecting the rights of transgender workers as well. In the Washington Blade article, reporter Chris Johnson quoted Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, as saying: “For the many transgender people who work for federal contractors, this brings a great sense of peace in knowing that their job security will be based on performance, and not gender identity.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Not an “accident”: Elbert C. Woods, 45, suffers fatal work-related injury at Cleveland, Ohio company
Elbert C. Woods, 45, suffered fatal traumatic injuries on Thursday, August 21 while working at Cleveland Track Material. Local reporters provide some initial information on the worker’s death:
The Northeast Ohio Media Group reports:
- Woods’ clothing became stuck in a machine and he was pulled into it.
- Woods’ co-workers were able to free him from the machine while they awaited response by the local fire department.
Cleveland.com notes that Cleveland Track Material:
- Employs about 250 people.
- The company manufactures railway track and components, such as switches that move trains from one track to another.
- The firm was founded in 1984 and is now a division of Vossloh North America.
Vossloh North America is a subsidiary of the German-based Vossloh Group of 100 companies operating in 30 countries. The 2013 stock market value of the firm was about €870 million (or $1.15 Billion US).
OSHA’s investigation into Elbert Woods’ death will not be the first time the agency has inspected the site. A 2009 inspection resulted in citations against the firm for five serious violations and a $4,235 penalty. Several of the violations involved inadequate guarding of moving parts and equipment.
Each year, more than 150 workers in Ohio are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 161 work-related fatalities in Ohio during 2012 (most recent available data.) Nationwide, at least 4,628 workers suffer fatal traumatic injuries in 2012.
The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report notes:
- Federal OSHA has 53 inspectors in Ohio to cover more than 250,400 workplaces.
- The average penalty for a serious OSHA violation in Ohio is $2,156.
Federal OSHA has until late February 2015 to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole Elbert C. Woods’ life. It’s likely they’ll determine that Woods’ death was preventable. It was no “accident.”
- Michael John Rettew, 41, suffered a serious work-related injured on April 29. He succumb to his injuries on July 8, 2014 which triggered the OSHA inspection.
The agency previously inspected the Vossloh’s Reading, PA facility in 2010. The inspection resulted in citations for three serious violations related to electrical hazards and lockout/tagout requirements. The company paid a $1,225 penalty.
Massachusetts advocates optimistic about paid sick leave ballot: ‘We need public policies that lift people up and keep families healthy’
After nearly a decade of hoping state legislators would pass an earned paid sick time law, advocates in Massachusetts decided it was time to put the question to voters. Now, in November, voters will have the chance to help improve the lives of nearly 1 million workers who can’t earn one, single hour of sick leave and are often left to choose between caring for themselves or a loved one, paying the bills or losing a job.
“This is about fundamental fairness in the workplace,” said Elizabeth Toulan, a senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services and former coordinator of the Massachusetts Paid Leave Coalition. “There’s something that seems fundamentally unfair about looking at a worker and acting as if they don’t have these needs. This is so basic. It arises for all of us at some point.”
The ballot proposal, known as Question 4, would allow all workers to earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to 40 hours per year. Workers could use the earned leave to care for themselves or a family member, and employers would be prohibited from firing workers for using earned sick time. Question 4 would apply to companies with 11 or more employees, while workers at companies with 10 or fewer employees could earn up to 40 hours of unpaid sick time. Toulan and her colleagues working on the Yes On 4 campaign seem optimistic about their chances, noting that the issue is attracting an outpouring of support. Toulan tells me that more 7,000 volunteers statewide collected about 365,000 signatures to get Question 4 on the ballot — and those are record-breaking numbers.
“This much I know — we’ve had vigorously strong support among likely voters in this election,” Toulan said. “It’s support that you hold onto even after opposition arguments have been advanced. This is something that people will actually leave their houses to vote for in a midterm election.”
The campaign to bring earned paid sick leave to Massachusetts workers began 10 years ago when the first version of an earned sick leave bill was filed in the state legislature. Since then, a bill has been filed during every legislative cycle, but to no avail. Then about two years, Toulan was discussing the issue with her client Deb Fastino, who’s the executive director of the state’s Coalition for Social Justice, and they decided it was pointless to file another legislative bill without an accompanying ballot strategy. To do that, earned sick leave advocates had to expand the breadth and depth of their coalition, eventually joining up with the minimum wage movement and forming Raise Up Massachusetts. The statewide coalition, which launched last year, has three main pillars: community-based groups, faith-based groups and unions. (The coalition celebrated an early victory in June, when Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed a bill raising the state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2017 — that’s the highest state-based rate in the nation.)
Even though it’s mostly low-wage workers who struggle with a lack of paid sick leave, the story of workers having to choose between sick children and a paycheck seems to resonate across the demographic spectrum. Fastino said it’s the values message that really appeals to voters.
“People believe it’s a fundamental right, not a privilege, to be able to care for yourself or for someone in your family,” Fastino told me. “It’s that values piece that hard-working people shouldn’t have to choose between jobs they need and the people they love.”
Paid sick leave & public health
The research is on the side of earned sick leave as well, especially when it comes to containing health costs and curbing the spread of disease.
For example, a 2012 research brief from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that in Massachusetts alone, the “benefits to workers and their families as a result of improved ability to care for sick relatives and reduced flu contagion are estimated at $24 million annually.” Another research paper found that providing paid sick leave to Massachusetts workers who currently don’t have the benefit would prevent about 27,450 emergency department visits each year and reduce health care costs by about $23.4 million, as workers will be less likely to delay needed medical care.
Nationwide, the National Partnership for Women & Families reports that adults without paid sick leave are 1.5 times more likely than workers with paid sick leave to go to work with a contagious disease. Plus, paid sick leave means children have access to their most important caregivers — their parents. In a perspective in support of family leave policies published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this month, physicians Mark Schuster and Paul Chung write:
But it’s not only preventable hospitalizations and contagion that are at issue: when children are sick enough to require medical attention, we need parents to be with them. Outpatient facilities and hospitals depend on parents to supervise their children, transport them to and from appointments, fill out forms, monitor symptoms, communicate with clinicians, collect laboratory samples, administer therapies, and provide comfort during tests and procedures.When children become patients, parents become health care providers, and without them, the pediatric health care system would grind to a halt.
Earned sick leave is an issue of public health, said Rebekah Gewirtz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, which is an organizational supporter of Yes On 4. Not only does earned sick leave limit the spread of disease, it also impacts the social and economic determinants that shape people’s health, Gewirtz noted.
“You have people who live in low-income communities and communities of color who suffer much higher rates of mortality and disease and work in jobs with no flexibility to care for themselves or their families,” she told me. “So the question is what are we doing about that? We need to alleviate that reality for families. We need public policies that lift people up and keep families healthy.”
Gewirtz said that public policies such as earned paid sick leave are critically important to protecting the public’s health and supporting families. She noted that historically, Massachusetts has been a leader on issues of social and economic justice — such as minimum wage and health reform — and it’s paying off. According to this year’s Kids Count Data Book, Massachusetts ranks No. 1 in the country for child well-being. And many of the child health indicators that contributed to that top ranking were the result of supportive public policies, Gewirtz said.
“We hear about workers who are fired (for taking sick leave) and it just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense in the interest of public health and it doesn’t make sense in the interest of justice. …Ultimately, (earned sick leave) is something that is long overdue and will even further benefit the families of Massachusetts and hopefully serve as a model for the rest of the country.”
While Question 4 has a lot of public support, advocates predict the opposition will begin to get louder as the vote gets closer. They’ll likely make the usual claims — like earned sick leave will run employers out of business or that workers will abuse the system. But the evidence doesn’t support such arguments. For example, in Connecticut, which passed the first statewide earned paid sick leave law in 2011, researchers found that the law had “modest effects or none at all on the state’s businesses.” Also, few Connecticut employers reported any abuses of sick leave and many said the new policy improved workplace morale and reduced illness at work. In San Francisco, which was the first locality to pass a paid sick leave policy, researchers found no evidence that paid sick leave affected job growth and, in fact, only found positive benefits.
Toulan said that the Massachusetts coalition made a point to reach out to and work with business owners in drafting the ballot proposal, and so Question 4 does have support within the business community as well. Still, Massachusetts workers really do have the power. As Toulan said: “If everybody who doesn’t have sick time gets out to vote, we’ll win.”
“People should be able to have their work valued and their dignity respected,” Toulan told me. “There’s no legitimate explanation for not treating workers with dignity and not valuing what they bring to the job.”
Nationwide, 40 million workers have no access to paid sick leave, including more than four in 10 private-sector workers and more than 80 percent of low-wage workers.
To learn more about the Massachusetts effort, visit Yes On 4. For more on paid sick leave, visit the National Partnership for Women & Families. And for a lot more coverage of why paid sick leave is a public health priority, read some of the Pump Handle’s previous coverage.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
New herbicide and GE seeds: EPA and USDA poised to approve herbicide with insufficiently unexamined cumulative and long-term health effects
If the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) give their approval to a new herbicide called Enlist Duo and to corn and soybean seeds genetically engineered (GE) to resist that chemical, the United States could see a significant increase in what is already one of the country’s most widely used herbicides. Yet while the EPA seems poised to approve Enlist Duo and USDA, the GE seeds, about 50 members of Congress have written to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressing their “grave concerns” about “the multiple adverse human health, environmental, agronomic and socioeconomic harms that approval of 2,4D crops will likely cause.”
The EPA says that “on the basis of protective and conservative human health and ecological risk assessments,” it has “confirmed” the new herbicide’s safety “for the public, agricultural worker and non-target species,” but many questions remain about effects of cumulative and long-term exposure, particularly for farm workers and others living near where it’s used. What makes these questions particularly pressing is that the new product combines two of the country’s three most widely used herbicides.
Enlist Duo and the corn and soybean seed engineered to tolerate it – both produced by Dow AgroSciences – were developed in response to the explosion of herbicide resistant weeds that has resulted from the past 15 to 20 years’ rapid expansion in use of glyphosate (the active ingredient of the herbicide sold as Roundup), now the country’s most commonly used herbicide. Enlist Duo would combine glyphosate with what’s called a choline salt of the herbicide 2,4 D – the United States’ third most widely used herbicide. The seeds engineered to resist this combination would enable farmers to use 2,4D on weeds without also destroying the corn and soy plants. The new product, writes the EPA, would “provide an additional tool to reduce the spread of glyphosate resistant weeds.”
2,4-D use could increase by 300 to 700 percent
Yet at the top of the list of the Congressional Representatives’ concerns, and most of the more than 300,000 public comments submitted to EPA as part of the agency’s pesticide approval process, are the human and environmental health effects of the expected increase in 2,4D use that will result from planting 2,4D-resistant corn and soy. (And just to clarify, the term “pesticides, as the agency explains on its “About Pesticides” page, is used to include herbicides as well as fungicides and other substances used to control pests.)
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) says that expected planting of new 2,4D-resistant seeds could prompt a nearly 300 to 700 percent increase in use of 2,4D by 2020. This is not a hyperbolic projection. According to the USDA, Between 1997 and 2014, the acreage planted in glyphosate-resistant soybeans rose from about 10 to 94 percent; glyphosate-resistant corn from about 10 to 89 percent; and cotton from about 10 to 91 percent of all such crops planted in the US. At the same time, glyphosate use climbed at a similarly steep rate.
The bottom line is essentially that as weeds develop resistance, the more herbicide is needed to control them. As Washington State University research professor and agricultural scientist Charles Benbrook pointed out in his comments to EPA, “There are now more than two-dozen glyphosate-resistant weeds covering perhaps 70+ million acres.” 2,4D resistant weeds have already been reported in the Midwest.
Human exposure concerns
When it comes to human exposure, pesticide drift is a major concern. USGS surveys have found glyphosate and 2,4D to be prevalent in streams throughout the Midwest which has some of the country’s highest concentration of use. These chemicals have also been found in groundwater.
The EPA explains that Enlist Duo is designed to “reduce volatility and off-site movement of the herbicide compared to other forms of 2,4-D.” Proposed conditions of the registration would require 30-foot buffers, and the product’s label instructions would specify that the herbicide not be used when winds are over 15 miles per hour. Aerial applications would be prohibited. The EPA also explains that because it has already approved glyphosate and 2,4 D and no new uses of glyphosate are expected to occur with use of Enlist Duo, no new health assessment is needed for that ingredient. But because use patterns of 2,4D are expected to change if Enlist Duo is approved, health impacts of 2,4D have been assessed as part of the EPA’s registration process.
Occupational and long-term exposure data gaps
While the EPA’s assessment makes 2,4-D sound generally safe, the agency cautions that there is potential for “post-application” exposure for those working or otherwise present where 2,4D has been used. (This includes accidental ingestion by young children playing on “turf” where 2,4D has been applied.) As for occupational exposure, EPA says, “occupational risk handler estimates are not of concern…for all scenarios for use of 2,4D choline salt on GE corn and soybean.” Yet the agency did not investigate inhalation or dermal exposure, explaining that given the low acute toxicity via inhalation and “no potential hazard via the dermal route,” no assessment was done for either as part of EPA’s Enlist Duo review.
But 2,4 D is not only used on corn and soybeans. It is also used on wheat, rice, barley, oats and other grains, on sugar cane, on nut and fruit tree crops (almonds, apples, apricots, cherries, oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, hazelnuts, nectarines, peaches, pears, pecans, peanuts, pistachios, plums, and walnuts) as well as asparagus and sweet corn. It is also used on pasturelands, on turf used for lawns, on landscaping plants and to control weeds along roads, railroads, in managed forestlands and with other non-crop plants. Most of these uses involve greater worker presence in treated orchards and fields than do corn and soybean cultivation.
A DowAgro Sciences material safety data sheet for 2,4D says people should not reenter fields for at least 12 hours after the herbicide has been applied. It also says “do not permit lactating dairy animals to graze fields within 7 days after application,” to withdraw meat animals from treated fields at least 3 days before slaughter, not to harvest “forage within 30 days of application” or harvest “treated mature crop” within 60 days of application. Incidental damage to vegetable crops is also a potential problem.
The National Pesticide Information Center at Oregon State University explains on its 2,4D fact sheet that “Breathing 2,4-D vapors can cause coughing, a burning feeling in the airway, and dizziness” and that “Sunscreen, insect repellents, and drinking alcohol may increase how much 2,4-D is absorbed through the skin.” Epidemiological studies of farm workers exposed to 2,4D and other pesticides found an increase in rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but it has not yet been determined whether or how 2,4D may have contributed to this outcome, so EPA does not consider 2,4D a human carcinogen. Studies done in the 1980s and ‘90s of 2,4D used in combination with another pesticide found links to adverse reproductive effects that included birth defects and miscarriages.
While acute effects of 2,4D appear to be few, Science and Environmental Health Network Science Director* Ted Schettler points out that the compound’s non-acute effects on thyroid hormone function may contribute to health effects that would take time to become apparent but that can lead to significant health problems. “Adequate maternal, fetal, and infant thyroid levels are necessary for normal brain development,” says Schettler. Even slightly abnormal thyroid hormone levels during pregnancy “are associated with adverse impacts on brain development and function in children measures several years later,” he explains. Further, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about one-third of US women of reproductive age aren’t getting enough iodine for healthy thyroid hormone production and “most of us,” says Schettler, are exposed to “environmental chemicals that can disrupt thyroid hormone function in a variety of ways.”
“Thus, as I see it,” says Schettler, “within the general population, there is a significant subset with marginal or frankly inadequate thyroid status at baseline. That’s a very different population than a bunch of healthy rats eating a healthy diet at baseline.”
“We are…concerned that EPA failed to thoroughly examine all of the significant health and environmental risks of 2,4-D including that of inhalation and aggregate exposure… The risks of approving 2,4-D crops are simply too great and the benefits too few to jeopardize public health, the environment and the long-term sustainability of our food supply. We therefore request EPA not register Enlist Duo for use on 2,4-D crops and USDA the regulated status for 2,4-D resistant crops,” wrote Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and colleagues in their July 31st letter to EPA and USDA.
USDA’s final environmental impact statement on the Enlist Duo-resistant corn and soybean seeds is open for public comment until September 8th. The EPA’s comment period closed June 30th. As of this writing neither EPA nor USDA had responded to the Congressional representatives’ letter. Unless the agencies have a dramatic reversal, we’re likely to see a dramatic increase in use of an herbicide with largely unexamined cumulative and long-term environmental health impacts.
*Ted Schettler also serves as Science Director for the Collaborative on Health and the Environment but SEHN is, he points out, his home institution; an earlier version of this piece omitted Schettler’s affiliation with SEHN.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.