EPA Fails Farmworkers, Again

As Farmworker Awareness Week draws to a close, the EPA has once again shuffled its papers and announced that it will do next to nothing to further protect farmworkers and their families from chlorpyrifos, a dangerous neurotoxic pesticide.

Farmworker using pesticides
A farmworker spraying pesticides in a soybean field. (Ittipon / Shutterstock)

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Farmworker Awareness Week has united hundreds of farmworkers and worker-rights advocates seeking stronger protections for the people who grow and harvest the food we eat every day. As the week draws to a close, however, the EPA has once again bureaucratically shuffled its papers and announced that it will do next to nothing to further protect farmworkers and their families from chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxic pesticide that is one of the top culprits in pesticide poisonings every year. We call chlorpyrifos “CPR” because 1) CPR is shorter to type, and 2) CPR is what you might need if you ever had the bad luck to breathe it.

On March 26, the EPA stated that despite dozens of peer-reviewed academic studies demonstrating that CPR causes damage to the developing brains of unborn children at far lower doses than the EPA’s regulations allow, it will not ban CPR across the board. Its secondary conclusion, that it may seek some future undisclosed mitigation for admittedly unacceptable risks to workers, is far too little, too late.

Dow AgroSciences, the major CPR manufacturer, is apoplectic, spluttering away about over-regulation. This reaction is a sham. The EPA has agreed to use a Dow model that purports to pinpoint the precise exposures to women and kids that will cause adverse effects. Despite the model’s numerous flaws and uncertainties, Dow has convinced the EPA that this one model has the precision and accuracy necessary to reduce safety precautions routinely employed to protect people from toxic pesticides.

The EPA’s elimination of protection is unconscionable. First, the Dow model would allow children to be exposed to amounts of CPR that could cause brain damage; it is only designed to prevent higher doses associated with acute poisonings in adults. Second, the Dow model is based on the intentional dosing of people in a study that the EPA’s ethics expert found ethically deficient, and the EPA’s scientific peer reviewers found that it lacked scientific credibility.

To be sure, the EPA finally established no-spray zones around schools, homes, hospitals and playfields. But the no-spray zones are tiny—only 10 feet wide for most applications. The reason? The EPA ignores direct exposure to pesticide drift. While the no-spray zones are designed to reduce exposure when people reach out and touch crops that have been sprayed, poisoning by coming into contact with pesticides wafting through the air happens with alarming frequency. In fact, most reported poisonings in Washington state are from direct drift.

The EPA should be ashamed. CPR impairs brain development in children and causes acute poisonings. People are exposed when they eat foods, drink contaminated water, work in fields, play in parks or go to school playgrounds where CPR drifts. In 2000, all homeowner uses of CPR stopped because of its alarming health effects on children who played on pesticide-treated carpets or hugged their pets wearing flea collars, but it left farmworker children and their communities unprotected.

In 2007, Pesticide Action Network and Natural Resource Defense Council petitioned the EPA to ban CPR because the agency failed to account for pesticide drift or the growing body of peer-reviewed studies from such reputable institutions as Columbia University, Mt. Sinai Hospital, and UC-Berkeley that found children exposed to CPR in utero had serious brain impairments, including lower IQs, autism and attention deficit disorder.

The EPA did nothing with the petition until we filed suit, and forward progress has come only when the EPA had to answer to a court. Indeed, in our current lawsuit, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals announced a date for oral argument on the same day the EPA released its CPR decision.

The EPA’s job is to protect people from toxic pesticides, but it’s not. On behalf of all farmworkers who find themselves in harm’s way, the EPA must take steps to prevent poisonings from pesticide spraying. On behalf of the children and their parents, the EPA must do more to protect against brain damage caused by this dangerous pesticide. Chlorpyrifos should be banned, period.

Patti is a senior attorney of the Northwest regional office in Seattle, where she works to fight efforts to turn the Pacific Northwest into a fossil fuel export hub. She also leads Earthjustice's pesticide work and efforts to preserve access to the courts and legal remedies. Her litigation experience includes notable successes in safeguarding the region’s old-growth forests, restoring Pacific salmon, and more.