Luis Medellin and his three little sisters -- aged 5, 9 and 12 -- live in the middle of an orange grove in this small Central Valley town. During the growing season, Luis and his sisters are awakened several times a week by the sickly smell of nighttime pesticide spraying. What follows is worse: searing headaches, nausea, vomiting.
But if a coalition of farm worker, public health, and children's advocates are successful, Luis and his little sisters may one day be able to sleep through the night without these toxic disruptions.
The public interest law firms Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice filed a petition today asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set safety standards protecting children who grow up near farms from the harmful effects of pesticide 'drift' -- the toxic spray or vapor that travels from treated fields. The groups are also asking the agency to immediately adopt no-spray buffer zones around homes, schools, parks and daycare centers for the most dangerous and drift-prone pesticides.
The petition was filed on behalf of farm worker groups United Farm Workers, Oregon-based Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO as well as Physicians for Social Responsibility, Washington-based Sea Mar Community Health Center, Pesticide Action Network, and the million-plus member MomsRising.org
The Medellin family's story is not unique. From apple orchards in Washington to potato fields in Florida, poisonous pesticide 'clouds' plague the people who live nearby -- posing a particular risk to the young children of the nation's farm workers, many of whom live in industry housing at the field's edge.
"When farm workers come home after a long day in the fields and orchards, they're faced with yet another worry -- the poisons that are settling in their homes, their lawns, their children's bodies," said Erik Nicholson, National Vice President of United Farm Workers. "We can't let another growing season go by. EPA needs to put an end to this today."
In 1996, Congress required EPA to set standards by 2006 to protect children from pesticides. Three years have passed since that deadline, and EPA's job is only partially complete. The agency has made some progress -- banning the use of some pesticides in the home and on lawns. But the agency has failed to protect children from these same pesticides when they drift from treated fields into nearby yards, homes, schools, parks and daycare centers.
"In farming communities throughout the country, children have been abandoned by federal pesticide protections," said Earthjustice attorney Janette Brimmer. "We're asking EPA to finish the job it started so children who live, go to school, or play near farms and orchards are kept safe from poisonous pesticides."
EPA has acknowledged the risk of pesticide drift, but still chose to go ahead with a double-standard: protecting urban and suburban areas, while leaving the children of farm workers and other rural kids vulnerable.
"We traditionally think of farms as healthy places," said MomsRising.org President Joan Blades. "But children and families across the country are being poisoned by pesticides that travel from the fields into their houses and bedrooms, causing serious and long-lasting damage to their health. We already have standards barring the use of such pesticides for homes and lawns to protect children. But all children deserve such protection. You shouldn't have to live in the suburbs to be safe from deadly pesticides."
"It's time the EPA put an end to this double-standard for farm workers. EPA's policies must protect farm workers and their children from unnecessary poisoning," said Farmworker Justice attorney Virginia Ruiz.
Pesticide poisoning reports and scientific studies show that pesticides are ending up in the air and in people's bodies at unsafe levels. Among a host of examples: recent air monitoring conducted near the Southwoods Elementary School in Hastings, Florida, detected pesticides in every sample, sometimes at levels that may pose serious health risks to young children.
"Children are especially vulnerable to pesticide exposures both because their smaller bodies cannot break down toxins as well as adults, and because their developmental processes are prone to being derailed -- even by very low-level exposure," explains Dr. Margaret Reeves, Senior Scientist for Pesticide Action Network. "The particular pesticides we're finding in our drift catching and biomonitoring results are some of the worst: chlorpyrifos, diazinon, endosulfan...these are associated with serious short- and long-term health effects. They are also entirely unnecessary."
One of the pesticides identified as being so dangerous that the groups have asked EPA to adopt immediate no-spray buffer zone is chlorpyrifos - initially developed as a nerve toxin by the Nazis. The short term effects of exposure to chlorpyrifos have been likened to a chemically-induced flu: chest tightness, blurred vision, headaches, coughing and wheezing, weakness, nausea and vomiting, coma, seizures, and even death.
"It's outrageous that our own government isn't protecting our children from being poisoned by pesticides drifting on their homes and schools," said Julie Montgomery, Project Director and attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. "How can parents possibly protect their children from these dangers on their own?"
- A copy of the petition (PDF)
- Factsheet with background on today's petition (PDF)
- A fact sheet detailing the specific health risks linked to pesticide exposure: http://www.panna.org/node/2392
- A background piece on the science behind pesticide drift: http://www.panna.org/drift/science
- The four-page (PDF) results of Hastings, FL drift-catcher results: http://www.panna.org/files/hastingsFLSum20080923.pdf
Kathleen Sutcliffe, (202) 667-4500, ext. 235
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.