Farm workers and advocate groups today filed a lawsuit in federal district court today against the Environmental Protection Agency to stop the continued use of a deadly pesticide called chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos is a highly neurotoxic insecticide developed from World War II-era nerve gas. Exposure can cause dizziness, vomiting, convulsions, numbness in the limbs, loss of intellectual functioning, and death.
"This pesticide puts thousands of workers at risk of serious illness every year," said Erik Nicholson of the United Farm Workers. "It is inexcusable for the EPA to allow the use of a pesticide they know to be damaging to people, especially children."
Luis Medellin, a Lindsay, California, resident, suffered first-hand exposure to chlorpyrifos. "I got sick, and my mother and younger sisters started throwing up, all this in our own home. It was a terrible feeling, the smell coming in through our air conditioner," he said. "The government must not allow this dangerous chemical to be sprayed around our schools and communities."
Chlorpyrifos is used widely on corn, orchard, and vegetable row crops all over the country. Also know as Lorsban, it is responsible for a substantial number of worker poisonings each year and has drifted into rural schoolyards and homes. In 2001, an EPA report found that chlorpyrifos poses risks to the health of workers and to the environment. Spraying chlorpyrifos on fields from farm vehicles with open cabs causes "risks of concern" to workers, yet EPA does not require enclosed cabs to protect farmworkers. Workers who enter sprayed fields are also exposed to unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos.
"It's wrong for EPA to allow continued uses of chlorpyrifos that exposes farm workers and their children to unacceptable risks of pesticide poisoning," said Patti Goldman, an attorney for Earthjustice based in Seattle.
The 2001 EPA report identified serious risks for children who are exposed to chlorpyrifos through drift onto schoolyards and outdoor play areas as well as take-home residues on their farmworker parents' clothing and skin. It called for additional study of the risks to children; however, it finalized its chlorpyrifos authorization in 2006 without taking any further action to protect them.
"Recognizing the risks to children, EPA banned most home and garden uses of chlorpyrifos. But by allowing continued use in agriculture, EPA failed to protect farm worker children or children living in rural areas," said Shelley Davis, attorney for Farmworker Justice in Washington, DC. "With safer alternatives already in widespread use, the EPA has betrayed the trust of the men, women, and children whose health it is supposed to protect," she said.
"Poisonings due to accidents, drift, and airborne contamination remain a serious hazard to children in rural and agricultural settings," said Dr. Routt Reigart, Professor of Pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston who has treated many chlorpyrifos poisonings. "Chlorpyrifos is a potent neurotoxicant with both acute and chronic effects on children and their developing nervous systems. To protect children it is important to remove this hazard from their environments," he concluded.
From 1987 to 1998, between 21 and 24 million pounds of chlorpyrifos were applied to more than eight million acres of crops in the U.S. It is one of the most heavily used insecticides in American agriculture, even though it was phased out of residential use in 2005 primarily because of the hazard it presented to children.
The lawsuit was brought by Earthjustice, Farmworker Justice, Natural Resources Defense Council, and California Rural Legal Assistance, on behalf of United Farm Workers, Teamsters Local 890 in California, Sea Mar Community Health Centers, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Beyond Pesticides, Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and Martha Rodriguez and Silvina Canez, farmworkers in California.
Read the complaint (PDF)