“If you’re a farmworker, you’re still using something that’s been deemed too dangerous to use in homes,” said Amy Liebman, Migrant Clinicians Network director of environmental and occupational health.
What she’s talking about is the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxic, organophosphate insecticide that’s used widely on food crops. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned it for residential use in 2000 due to concerns about its toxicity, particularly to children. But it is still heavily used on numerous food crops. Chlorpyrifos also is one of the five pesticides most often identified in acute pesticide poisonings of workers and bystanders.
The EPA has been reassessing the risks of chlorpyrifos use but that process has been dragging on. Meanwhile, the pesticide continues to be applied on crops, posing serious risks to farmworkers, their families and communities. So on September 21st, Farmworker Justice and Earthjustice filed a legal petition on behalf of United Farm Workers and nine other farmworker and labor advocacy groups from Florida to California, asking the EPA to immediately suspend hundreds of uses of chlorpyrifos. “We’re basically seeking a ban on agricultural use,” Liebman explained.
According to the National Pesticide Information Center, “Chlorpyrifos can be harmful if it is touched, inhaled, or eaten.” It works by blocking an enzyme essential to the nervous system in ways that kill insects. But chlorpyrifos also affects the human nervous system. Exposure to even small amounts can cause headaches, nausea and dizziness among other symptoms. Higher exposures can cause muscle cramps, tremors, loss of coordination and vision problems. Severe poisoning can lead to difficulty breathing, convulsions, paralysis and unconsciousness.
While the EPA has now barred the use of chlorpyrifos on tomatoes and restricted when it can be used on some other crops, some 7 to 8 million pounds are still used each year in the U.S. It’s used on crops that include almonds, walnuts, cotton, alfalfa, oranges and other citrus, grapes, cranberries, rice, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, nectarines, onions, peanuts, cherries, plums, peaches, apples, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, hazelnuts, pecans, wheat, soybeans, sugar beets and Brussels sprouts. In its 2014 assessment the EPA concluded that many of the ways chlorpyrifos is used poses serious risks to agricultural workers. It has also concluded that in places of intensive use, chlorpyrifos can contaminate drinking water sources. People are also exposed to chlorpyrifos through pesticide drift because many of the crops on which it’s used are planted right next to homes and schools.
“What we’re talking about is protecting workers and their families – also our food and water supply,” said Earthjustice managing attorney Patti Goldman. “It’s a frustration that EPA has left the workers behind,” she said.
The petition filed on behalf of United Farm Workers, League of United Latin American Citizens, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, National Hispanic Medical Association, Farmworker Association of Florida, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Migrant Clinicians Network, Learning Disabilities Association of America, GreenLatinos, and California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation asks the EPA to take immediate action to prohibit the use of chlorpyrifos, beginning by stopping the uses the agency found posed “risks of concern to workers.”
“EPA‘s findings demonstrate that chlorpyrifos cannot be used in a way that is safe for workers, and support our call for a full ban on the pesticide in the accompanying petition to cancel all chlorpyrifos uses,” the petition says. It also asks the EPA to take immediate steps to protect pregnant workers to prevent prenatal exposures that can cause nervous system damage to their children. This damage can occur at very low exposure levels.
“EPA’s risk assessments do not protect against brain damage to children”
Chlorpyrifos has been shown to reduce IQ in children who were exposed prenatally. Such exposure has also been linked to learning disabilities and behavioral problems like attention hyperactivity deficit disorder. In addition, researchers at Columbia University have found that the brains of children exposed to chlorpyrifos were physically altered in ways that interfere with memory and cognition.
According to Philip Landrigan dean of global health, professor of pediatrics and preventative medicine at the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, current EPA exposure limits for chlorpyrifos are set at levels far higher than those at which adverse impacts to children’s health actually occur. “EPA’s risk assessments do not protect against brain damage to children,” wrote Landrigan in a declaration submitted to the EPA as part of the legal petition.
“I really think there’s overwhelming evidence of what happens to kids [who are exposed],” said Liebman. “It baffles me that it’s still being used,” she said. At the same time, given that the majority of U.S. farmworkers exposed to pesticides are Latino, chlorpyrifos exposures amount to an environmental justice issue, Liebman explained.
The EPA has not yet responded to the petition. The groups hope it will jumpstart a process that will lead to a ban on chlorpyrifos. And they want this to happen sooner rather than later.