EPA Puts Deadline on Pesticide That Poisons Farmworkers

Decision leaves pesticide on the market for 6 more years


Patti Goldman, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340 ext. 32
Erik Nicholson, United Farmworkers of America, (206) 255-5774
Shelley Davis, Farmworker Justice, (202) 783-2628
Mike Meuter, California Rural Legal Assistance, (831) 757-5221 ext. 316

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today it will phase out the use of a deadly pesticide, AZM, developed from World War I-era nerve toxins that poisons farmworkers and injures their children. The phase out will take six years for the most widespread uses of the pesticide, which will continue to subject workers and their families to poisoning risks. 

“This pesticide has put thousands of workers at risk of serious illness every year,” said Erik Nicholson of the United Farm Workers of America. “The phase out is welcome, but it is inexcusable for EPA to allow this pesticide to continue poisoning workers for 6 more years.”

The pesticide, azinphos-methyl (AZM, also known as guthion), is a highly neurotoxic organophosphate insecticide. Organophosphate insecticides attack the human brain and nervous system.  Exposure can cause dizziness, vomiting, convulsions, numbness in the limbs, loss of intellectual function, and death.  Farmworker families and communities are exposed to organophosphates through “take-home” exposures on clothing, contamination of cars and drift onto outdoor play areas.   

Under federal law, EPA decides which pesticides may be used throughout the United States. In 2001, EPA found that AZM poses unacceptable risks to workers, but it allowed the pesticide to continue to be used for four more years because less toxic alternatives might cost a bit more to use.  Farmworker advocates challenged that decision in federal court in Seattle because EPA failed to take into account the costs of poisoning workers, exposing children, and polluting rivers and streams. The farmworker groups bringing the lawsuit are the United Farm Workers of America, Sea Mar Community Health Centers, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Beyond Pesticides, Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional, and Arnulfo Lopez, a farmworker in California. In the lawsuit, EPA committed to reconsider whether to ban AZM, which led to the phase-out decision. 

EPA will phase out all uses of AZM by 2012 with some uses phased out by 2007. The decision would also eliminate aerial spraying, require 60 foot buffers around water bodies, reduce application rates, require buffers around buildings and occupied dwellings, and require medical monitoring of workers entering fields sprayed by AZM. 

“It is outrageous that EPA allowed continued use of this pesticide knowing that it would expose farmworkers to unacceptable risks of pesticide poisonings,” said Patti Goldman, an attorney for Earthjustice. “Since growers have already had five years to shift to other pest controls, there is no reason to subject workers and their communities to more poisonings for another six years.” 

AZM is used primarily to kill insects on orchard crops such as apples, cherries, pears, peaches and nectarines. The highest uses occur in Washington, Oregon, California, Michigan, Georgia, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“With safer alternatives already in widespread use, the EPA has betrayed the trust of the men, women, and children whose health it is duty bound to protect by allowing this extremely hazardous pesticide to remain in use for six more years,” said Shelley Davis, attorney for the Farmworker Justice.  “It is time to make that shift now.”

Read the EPA’s decision.

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