Victory Protects Communities From Dangerous Pesticide

Toxic chemical AZM to be pulled from the market this month

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We’re all familiar with those ubiquitous television commercials that implore us to “ask our doctor” about a new pill to cure depression or anxiety or to treat those unfortunate souls who find themselves depressively anxious. Slipped into nearly every such commercial is the reassuring voice of a narrator who inconspicuously mentions that this same magical pill has a few side effects. Oh, you know, nothing too serious—maybe you’ll go blind in one eye or lose control of your bowels, maybe your liver will cease functioning. Nothing worth fretting over.

In the same vein, pesticides are often promoted as the silver bullet panaceas of the agriculture industry. Sure, the industry seems to say, this or that pesticide might contain toxic chemicals that damage human health or negatively impact ecosystems, but these same pesticides make growing shiny apples and juicy blueberries so much easier! And besides, finding pesticide alternatives might cost the agriculture industry a few extra bucks.

Fortunately, Earthjustice is well-versed in using the law and the courts to hold accountable those who jeopardize the health and safety of the public and our environment. Case in point: azinphos-methyl, a dangerous pesticide commonly referred to as AZM.

AZM was created by German scientists during WWII as a chemical warfare agent to be used against human beings. However, after the war ended, AZM (along with a slew of other chemical warfare agents) was marketed to the agriculture industry as an effective pesticide that reliably killed insects. Thus, in the United States, AZM has historically been applied to nut trees and fruit crops by farmers looking to prevent crop damage caused by insects. And AZM has done its job—only too well. While the pesticide does indeed kill insects, it also has dire side effects on human beings: AZM exposure can cause dizziness, vomiting, seizures, paralysis, loss of mental function and death. Despite the dangerous nature of AZM, for decades it has been applied to apples, cherries, pears, peaches, blueberries, nectarines, and other crops in states such as California, Oregon, and Washington.

With AZM presenting such an obvious risk to human health and safety, in 2004 farmworkers and environmental groups represented by Earthjustice sued the EPA for allowing the continued use of AZM, despite numerous poisonings every year of workers and people who live near the fields. We emerged victorious in 2006 when the EPA decided that the harm to workers and families is so great that all uses of AZM must be phased out by Sept. 30 this year. This victory is a testament to the effectiveness of citizen advocacy and stands as proof that Earthjustice is making real progress in safeguarding our health and the health of our environment.

Unfortunately, owing to agriculture industry pressure, the EPA has allowed farmers to use remaining stocks of AZM for another year. However, the rate of use has declined precipitously since the 2006 decision, meaning that the chemical will be used sparingly during the final year of its application.

“This deadly chemical is far too harmful to be used on our food,” said Patti Goldman, Earthjustice’s Vice President of Litigation. “It has taken us going to court to force the EPA to protect the American people from this deadly chemical. AZM will be off the market in less than a month and out of the air and our food in one year. It has taken too long but we will finally see the end of this nasty pesticide.” 

David Lawlor was a writer in the Development department. His environmental activism stems from an affinity for nature and the deep ecology philosophy espoused by the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess.

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.