Suit Filed to Speed Phase-out of Three Deadly Pesticides

Current six year phase-out for worst is likely to poison farmworkers


Patti Goldman, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 32

Erik Nicholson, United Farmworkers of America, (206) 255-5774

Shelley Davis, Farmworker Justice, (202) 293-5420, ext. 311

Mike Meuter, California Rural Legal Assistance, (831) 757-5221, ext. 316

A government plan allowing six more years’ use of a deadly pesticide it admits needs to be banned was challenged by conservation groups. The groups, represented by Earthjustice, reopened a lawsuit in federal district court aimed at speeding up the removal of azinphos-methyl, commonly called AZM or guthion. The legal actions also takes aim at getting rid of two other deadly pesticides, phosmet and chlorpyrifos. All three were developed from World War II-era nerve toxins. 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. Chlorpyrifos is used widely on corn and orchard crops. Use of phosmet on orchard crops and blueberries poses particularly serious risks to workers.

Last November the EPA decided that AZM poses unreasonable adverse effects and must be banned but allowed its continued use on fruit crops for six more years — until 2012 — and on nut crops for three more years — until 2009. The conservation groups contend this is too long because of the immediate and severe risks it poses to farm workers and their families. The EPA found that phosmet and chlorpyrifos pose “risks of concern” to workers for poisonings and to the environment in the form of water contamination and fish kills. However, it did not adopt sufficient mitigation to reduce or eliminate these risks.

“These pesticides put thousands of workers at risk of serious illness every year,” said Erik Nicholson of the United Farm Workers of America. “It is inexcusable for EPA to allow AZM to continue poisoning workers for six more years.”

Between 1987 and 1998, between 21 and 24 million pounds of chlorpyrifos were applied to more than eight million acres of crops in the US. The largest use is on corn. Both AZM and chlorpyrfos have led to violations of water quality standards.

All three pesticides are highly neurotoxic organophosphate insecticides. 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. New alternatives have emerged that cost only slightly more and produce the same amount and quality of food crops. Farmworker families and communities are exposed to organophosphates through take-home exposures on clothing, contamination of cars and drift onto outdoor play areas. In the case of phosmet, residue in sprayed fields poses dangers to workers up to four weeks after application but the EPA allows workers to reenter most fields a week or less after application. Chlorpyrifos is commonly showered on fields from open cab tractors, yet EPA did not require closed cabs which could eliminate severe poisonings risks.  

In 2001, EPA found that AZM poses unacceptable risks to workers, but it allowed continued use of the pesticide for four more years because less toxic alternatives cost more to use. Farmworker advocates challenged that decision in federal court because EPA failed to take into account the costs of poisoning workers, exposing children, and polluting rivers and streams. To settle the lawsuit, EPA agreed to reconsider whether to ban AZM and announced its six-year phase-out last November. In January, EPA added some mitigation for phosmet, but far less than what it had previously deemed necessary to reduce worker risks. EPA has added no additional safeguards for workers applying chlorpyrifos.

“It is outrageous that EPA allowed continued use of AZM 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.” 

“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.”

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. 

Read the complaint (pdf)  

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