Officials have signaled they may eliminate the age requirements for working with toxic chemicals on farms and other worksites.
If the Environmental Protection Agency follows through with a reform now under consideration, teenage farmworkers and other working minors would once again be allowed to handle dangerous pesticides while on the job.
The EPA is now reevaluating a 2015 rule that tightened safety standards for farmworkers. In particular, the agency is considering changing or scrapping the requirement that anyone working with pesticides in agriculture be at least 18 years old.
Doctors had called for those restrictions to be put in place because pesticides can increase the risk of cancer or impact brain development in children.
The EPA may also tweak or do away with the age requirements of another recent rule, which spells out who can be certified to be an applicator of the chemicals that the EPA classifies as the most toxic. That could make it legal for minors to work with what are known as “restricted-use” pesticides, like arsenic and methyl bromide, in a host of industries beyond just agriculture, such as landscaping and pest control.
Restricted-use pesticides are not sold to the public for general use because of how dangerous they can be to people and the environment.
The EPA placed two notices of the potential reforms in the federal register in late December, while Congress was wrestling with its massive overhaul of the tax system. The agency said it was taking a second look at the regulations “as part of the President’s Regulatory Reform Agenda,” which takes aim at rules “appropriate for repeal, replacement or modification.”
Both of the pesticide rules were tightened during former President Barack Obama’s second term. The EPA’s reforms were being gradually phased in to give employers and state regulators time to adjust. The age requirement for agriculture work was implemented this year. The age requirement for pesticide applicators hasn’t gone into effect yet.
The Trump White House has often boasted about the many regulations it has stripped away during his first year in office, many of them environmental rules from the EPA, one of the president’s favorite administrative punching bags. But the proposal to peel back safety standards for child farm workers was issued without any public fanfare.
“I think that there’s a pretty strong likelihood that if the minimum age is eliminated or lowered, there will be more people getting sick,” said William Jordan, a former EPA official who worked on developing the tighter pesticide rules. “When people are handling dangerous pesticides, they need to make sure they know what they’re doing.”
Jordan said when it comes to certain restricted-use pesticides, even “a small amount like a teaspoon can kill you.”