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Farms Could See Shortage of Protective Gear Amid Covid-19 Needs

March 26, 2020, 10:00 AM

Farmworkers are bracing for potential shortages of protective equipment used to apply pesticides as supplies are diverted to emergency health care needs in response to the coronavirus.

When applying chemicals to fields and orchards, pesticide applicators use much the same personal protective equipment (PPE) as health care workers: protective suits, gloves, and single-use N95 respirators.

While many farmers and spraying contractors report having enough supplies for the spring growing season, they worry that shortages today could cut availability of the gear later in the year.

Feeling the Pinch

Carl Atwell, president of Gempler’s, a Wisconsin-based supplier of agriculture and landscaping PPE, said orders for disposable respirators and masks placed today wouldn’t arrive until June. “And that’s just an estimate,” he said.

Atwell said he’s also seeing shortages of chemical-resistant gloves, Tyvek suits, goggles, and respirator masks for use on farms.

“All of our major suppliers is being impacted,” he said, “Whether it’s Dupont, 3M, Honeywell—they’re all being told by the government to divert supply to hospitals first.”

This week both Honeywell International Inc. and 3M Co. announced plans to ramp up production of N95 masks to meet the critical needs of health care workers and emergency responders. 3M said it doubled its global output of masks and respirators to a rate of nearly 100 million per month—more than 90% of which are designated for health care workers.

Reusing Gloves

For many North American farmers, the timing of the coronavirus pandemic came after they had purchased crop protection chemicals and gear for the spring season.

“Thankfully, we’re were already pretty well stocked in terms of PPE for our mixers and handlers,” said Jeff Bunting, crop protection division manager for Growmark, an Illinois-based company that handles pesticide application contracts for farmers.

But the situation could be different in a few months if orders are still backed up as farmers try to restock for late-season spraying, or for next year, Bunting said.

Tanette Feddick of Feddick Distributors, a Minnesota-based wholesale agricultural supplier, said her business sold 800 cases of dust masks in a week. It usually takes six months to sell that many, she said.

“At this point, all we can do is take people’s name, and put them on a list,” she said.

Some pesticide contracting companies are taking steps to try to extend the life of the gear they have in case supplies remain low.

“We can wash and reuse nitrile gloves, and try to conserve dust masks as much as possible,” said Joe Sinclair, president of Quality Ag Service, a full-service farm retailer and pesticide contractor.

‘Already a Big Problem’

Pesticides classified as “restricted use” can only be applied by certified applicators, and each pesticide product label lists PPE requirements. That label is a legal document designed to ensure pesticides are safely applied and the user is adequately protected.

Without proper protective clothing farmworkers can experience skin irritation, respiratory problems, or organ damage, and pregnant workers could have complications, said Iris Figueroa, a staff attorney with Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C., based advocacy group.

“This issue of workers being exposed to toxic chemicals was already a big problem before the pandemic, so I can only image what will happen now,” said Figueroa.

Of highest concern “given the current situation” of a virus that attacks the lungs, is respiratory protection needed for people working with fumigant pesticides or volatile chemicals, such as anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, she said.

Testing Center Closures

Because of coronavirus, many state agriculture departments are shutting down in-person testing centers, which manage certification programs for pesticide applicators.

Some states are able to offer certification courses online. And executive orders in states including Louisiana, Nebraska, Tennessee, Iowa, and Illinois, have extended the expiration dates for pesticide applicator licenses into 2021.

However, Growmark’s Bunting says that won’t address the issue of certifying new employees to apply pesticides, if and when they’re needed.

“You know we don’t have a lot of applicators that are licensed to apply restricted-used products,” he said. “If they get sick and we lose those people, that could be big problem for a farmers, and companies like ours.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Adam Allington in Washington at aallington@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergenvironment.com

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