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How Many Poisonings Before the EPA Bans Neurotoxic Pesticides?

The EPA should ban the pesticides now under review and protect against them in the meantime with buffer zones.

The EPA should ban neurotoxic pesticides now under review and protect against them in the meantime with buffer zones.
The EPA should ban neurotoxic pesticides now under review and protect against them in the meantime with buffer zones. (Jason Lugo/iStock)

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The EPA is reviewing the health risks associated with another group of pesticides. And it has found the same thing yet again: Whenever organophosphates are sprayed in the air, they can cause both immediate and long-term health harms to farmworkers, kids and others who are exposed. That’s in addition to the risks kids already face from pesticides in drinking water and on foods they commonly eat like bananas, potatoes and sweet potatoes.

The evidence is in, and the EPA must ban these dangerous pesticides. Yet while the EPA works through their lengthy review timeline, thousands of people—particularly children and farmworkers—are poisoned every year. That is unacceptable, and thankfully, it’s avoidable.

The current group of pesticides under review includes bensulide, coumaphos, pirimiphos-methyl and aldicarb. Over the past decade, the EPA has phased out many residential and some agricultural uses of organophosphate pesticides. However, neurotoxic organophosphate and carbamate compounds are still found in many insecticide products—and on foods and in drinking water. They show up on many dietary staples, including bananas and banana baby food, potatoes, peanuts, beans and citrus fruits.

Organophosphates are the most commonly used class of pesticides in the United States. According to the EPA, more than 33 million pounds of these pesticides are sprayed annually, and they account for more than one third of all insecticides used in this country. But a substantial body of scientific evidence has long shown that these pesticides are doing more than just poisoning insects—they’re poisoning people. That includes the farmworkers who work with these chemicals, their families and others exposed through drift, diet and water.

According to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, in 2014 there were 1,661 cases of carbamate poisoning and 2,901 cases of organophosphate poisoning. Of the carbamate pesticide incidents, more than 500 involved children younger than 13. For organophosphates, there were more than 700 children younger than 13 affected. These numbers should shock the EPA (and all of us) into action, but they do not even include people exposed to these pesticides at work because worker incidents are recorded by a different agency. Children and infants are more susceptible to poisoning because their bodies are less able to flush out the pesticides. Children also have a natural tendency to explore their environments by touching objects and putting them in their mouths, which also puts them at increased risk of exposure to pesticides.

Studies have shown repeatedly (and the EPA has acknowledged) that organophosphate exposure is associated with delays in mental development in infants, attention problems, autism spectrum disorder and negative impacts to intelligence. One study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that children whose mothers lived within one mile of fields treated with organophosphate pesticides during their pregnancy were 60 percent more likely to develop autism spectrum disorders than children whose mothers did not live near treated fields.

These risks have long been known to the EPA, and there’s no excuse for failing to act. For example, one of the neurotoxics included in the newest group of pesticides under review is aldicarb. The EPA found that preschoolers eating sweet potatoes are exposed to more than three times the level of aldicarb that the agency itself believes is safe. When drinking water is included, the risk spikes to nearly 30—that’s right, 30 times the EPA’s safe risk level.

Earthjustice and a broad coalition of partners, including Farmworker Justice, the Pesticide Action Network, United Farmworkers and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are fighting to ban this group of neurotoxic pesticides as part of a larger fight against organophosphates and all other pesticides that harm workers, kids and the environment. That effort includes urging the EPA to prohibit one of the worst of the worst organophosphates, chlorpyrifos, which the EPA has finally said it will ban.

But as long as the EPA puts off enacting protections for farmworkers, families and everyone else exposed to these dangerous chemicals, the fight is far from over. The EPA must institute a total ban on organophosphates. Full stop. And in the meantime—in light of the staggering health effects these pesticides cause—the agency must take protective measures like requiring buffer zones.

The longer we wait to ban these pesticides, the longer they will harm children and farmworkers. These aren’t just numbers—they represent real-life children and workers who deserve protection now.

Matt was part of the Northwest regional office in Seattle from 2013 to 2016. He was a graduate of New York University School of Law, where he was a Root-Tilden-Kern Scholar, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he obtained a Master in Public Administration.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.