It’s a tolerable 40 degrees in Mount Dora, Florida, where 18-year-old Selena Zelaya is from. Instead of hanging out with friends or working at her part-time job at McDonald’s, Zelaya braved the freezing temperatures in DC to lobby on an issue close to her heart: Farmworker protections. It’s her second time lobbying in DC on this issue.
“I’m a very shy person. It takes a lot to make me talk,” Zelaya says. “But it was an issue I had to speak up about. When it’s something important, I like to speak my mind.”
Both of Zelaya’s parents are farmworkers in their home state of Florida, and Selena came back to DC this week to meet with congressional and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representatives to continue pushing for improvements to the weak and outdated Worker Protection Standard (WPS), which sets agricultural worker safety standards for pesticide use, but has not been updated or revised for more than 20 years. Public interest environmental group Earthjustice, Farmworker Association of Florida and several other farmworker advocacy organizations are leading the effort to push for these stronger protections.
An estimated 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States and our nation’s up to 2.4 million farmworkers face the highest threat from the health impacts of these chemicals. In Florida, there are only about 40 inspectors assigned to ensure that the approximately 40,000 agricultural operations in the state are complying with legal requirements and keeping the estimated 290,000 farmworkers in the state safe.
Zelaya is joined in DC by her father, Miguel Zelaya and farmworker advocates from North Carolina. They are hopeful the EPA will release a revised WPS to the public by March 2014. Zelaya said not much has changed for farmworkers since her last visit to DC in July. She said she wanted to follow up with congressional offices “to see if anything has been done, if there has been any resolution and to encourage them and to say, ‘Look, you said you would do this; you said you would make changes, and we want to see the changes you promised.’”
Back home, Zelaya is a freshman at Seminal State College, interested in becoming a physical therapist or another career that helps people. She said she has always been exposed to the farmworker community and volunteers with the Farmworker Association of Florida several times a month.
Why is she so passionate about this issue?
“It affects more than just the farmworkers and their families,” said Zelaya. “It affects the people eating the products. It’s not even safe for us to eat some of that stuff. The exposure to pesticides in foods is going to affect all of our health.”