Today, We Sue to Ban Highly Toxic Pesticide

Chlorpyrifos is in same chemical family as Nazi nerve agents

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Terri Carawan’s health problems began in 1984, soon after the spraying started. Her skin became inflamed and her burning, itching eyes were nearly swollen shut with fluid. Despite tremendous fatigue, she struggled with sleeplessness.

It turns out that the telephone company where Terri worked as an operator had recently hired a pest control service to deal with lice and other insects in the building. Every month, they sprayed a pesticide called chlorpyrifos throughout the premises, including on the switchboard Terri operated.

In one of my first cases as a young lawyer, I represented Terri after her exposure to chlorpyrifos, recovering her medical expenses and lost wages and getting the spraying stopped. More than a quarter century later, while most indoor uses of chlorpyrifos have been banned due to risks to human health, the pesticide is still sprayed liberally—nearly 10 million pounds per year—on corn, oranges, and other crops in fields and orchards across the United States.

Today, I am proud that Earthjustice, along with NRDC and Pesticide Action Network, is filing suit to get this dangerous pesticide banned for good.

Exposure to chlorpyrifos can lead to vomiting, confusion and dizziness, respiratory problems, nervous system disruption, coma, and even death. Luis Medellin understands these risks of chlorpyrifos all too well. Medellin lives with his parents and three little sisters in the agricultural town of Lindsay, CA, where chlorpyrifos is routinely sprayed on the orange groves surrounding his home. The 24-year-old Medellin underwent testing for pesticides and discovered that he harbors concentrations of a compound indicating exposure to chlorpyrifos that are nearly five times higher than the national average for adults, as calculated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A chilling connection brings home the severe impacts chlorpyrifos can have on human health: the pesticide is from a family of chemicals closely related to nerve agents developed by the Nazis during World War II. Scientific research is discovering links between children who are exposed to chlorpyrifos in the womb or during early childhood and long-lasting developmental effects like ADHD and reduced head sizes at birth. The case we are filing today seeks to permanently protect children and their families—people like Luis Medellin and his young sisters—from the dangers of chlorpyrifos.

When toxic pesticides are retired from the market, however, it’s critical that they aren’t replaced by something as bad or worse. Unfortunately, such a scenario is unfolding in California. This spring, the state moved to approve the highly toxic pesticide methyl iodide—which has been used in medical research to induce cancer in cell cultures—as a replacement for methyl bromide, another agricultural pesticide. While discontinuing the use of methyl bromide was the right call (it depletes the ozone layer), replacing it with a known carcinogen also linked to miscarriages and other serious health impacts is simply unconscionable.

Methyl iodide is injected directly into soil before strawberries, peppers, and tomatoes are planted. But it doesn’t stay there. Methyl iodide is a highly volatile compound, and as such, it can easily drift from the fields where it is applied into nearby communities, subjecting people living, working, and playing nearby to serious health risks. A state-commissioned study on methyl iodide warned that use of the highly toxic pesticide “would result in exposures to a large number of the public and thus would have a significant adverse impact on public health,” and that “adequate control of human exposure would be difficult, if not impossible.”

California’s proposed approval of methyl iodide drew a huge public outcry: more than 50,000 comments were submitted, the largest public response that the state’s pesticide regulators have ever seen. The state is currently sifting through these comments before making a final determination. Meanwhile, Earthjustice is petitioning the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban methyl iodide, which one scientist said is “without question, one of the most toxic chemicals on earth.”

Safe, economically feasible alternatives to methyl iodide, chlorpyrifos and other pesticides do exist. In the case of methyl iodide, however, the state of California didn’t investigate any of these alternatives in its proposed approval of the pesticide’s use, disregarding both state law and the safety of residents.

Agriculture is a very important industry, but it shouldn’t be conducted in a way that poisons people who work in the fields, live, go to school, or play nearby. Earthjustice and our clients and allies will continue working to protect these communities from the unacceptable risks posed by spraying farms and workplaces with unnecessary toxic chemicals.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”