Groups Urge EPA to Ban Nerve Agent Pesticides

Report shows exposure to organophosphates linked to intellectual disabilities and cancer


Erin Fitzgerald,

Today, Earthjustice filed a petition along with a coalition of 10 health, community, and farmworker groups asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban neurotoxic organophosphate pesticides, which are prevalent in our food and water, and endanger farmworkers and their families. The EPA recently banned all food uses of chlorpyrifos, the most well-known organophosphate pesticide, but only one among a dangerous pesticide group. Chlorpyrifos is just one of over a dozen organophosphates (OP) the agency reauthorized for use in agricultural fields, even though they are acutely neurotoxic — meaning that people who are exposed at high doses over a brief period can experience severe neurological symptoms — and are linked to neurodevelopmental harm to fetuses and infants.

Along with the petition, Earthjustice is releasing a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind report and data set collating 17 organophosphate human health risk assessments, as well as agricultural pesticide usage data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). This report documents the location and amount of organophosphate usage in the United States and the dangerous health effects associated with exposure. This powerful tool also shows what crops are sprayed, the foods that contain elevated levels of pesticide residues, and links to health risks evaluations and brief regulatory history. The report’s findings are staggering:

  • Certain regions are particularly at risk. Hot spots include central and southern California, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, central and southern Florida, southern Georgia, and South Carolina.
  • Exposure to organophosphate pesticides occurs through multiple pathways. Farmworkers are most at risk, but people anywhere in the U.S. can be exposed through their drinking water, food, and the air they breathe. Infants and toddlers face greater harm from dietary exposure. Exposures to most of the organophosphates examined show infants and toddlers are exposed to dangerous levels, in some cases 100 times over EPA’s so-called levels of concern.
  • In addition to neurotoxicity, organophosphates are associated with other serious health effects. Nearly half of the 17 organophosphates reviewed were associated with reproductive harm or characterized as carcinogenic.
  • Organophosphate pesticide residues are widespread and found in concerning levels in the produce we eat and feed our families. Even though it is not legally allowed, residue was found on cilantro, basil, frozen strawberries, frozen spinach, mangoes, and sweet bell peppers; while residues found on raisins, mangoes, mustard greens, and snap peas exceeded allowable limits.
  • People living near fields where organophosphate pesticides are used can experience dangerous levels of exposure. Oral and skin exposures resulting from spray drift were associated with risk levels of concern for more than half of the organophosphates examined. Rural communities are already more vulnerable to harm than the general population because factors like poverty and racial injustice can make these communities much more vulnerable to negative health impacts.

“The EPA said it banned chlorpyrifos to protect children and workers from harm,” said Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman. “But the EPA’s own data shows that all organophosphates are linked to intellectual disabilities, not just chlorpyrifos. The EPA must ban all organophosphates from food.”

Decades of scientific research show that exposure to organophosphates, particularly during pregnancy, can lead to reduced IQ, loss of working memory, and attention deficit disorders in children. Harms to children’s brains occur at even low levels of exposure, according to studies that tracked mothers and children. Furthermore, organophosphate can cause acute poisoning to farmworkers at allowable levels of exposure, even when workers wear the most protective equipment. In some cases, exposure can be lethal.

Earthjustice is co-petitioner with the United Farm Workers, United Farm Workers Foundation, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Farmworker Association of Florida, Farmworker Justice, GreenLatinos, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, League of United Latin American Citizens, Learning Disabilities Association of America, Pesticide Action Network North America, and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste.

Quotes from our co-petitioners:

“As the son of farm worker parents who have labored in California’s agricultural fields for over 35 years, I urge the EPA to ensure the protection of farmworker families who are on the frontlines of exposure to harmful insecticides,” said Eriberto Fernandez, Government Affairs Deputy Director, United Farm Worker Foundation. “Organophosphates have no place in our food. To advance environmental justice, the agency must ensure that its decisions leave no farmworker behind. To protect ALL farmworkers, EPA must ban ALL uses of this neurotoxic pesticide and we will continue to advocate to that end.”

“Farmworker families across the country are raising children with learning disabilities, ADHD, and other neurodevelopmental problems due largely to agricultural and dietary exposure to organophosphate pesticides. With the least access to resources, these families struggle every day to make a living and provide the care they can for their offspring,” said Jeannie Economos, Farmworker Association of Florida. “Not only is this an incredible injustice to the men and women whose work feeds America, it is tragic for the children’s futures. Our communities suffer. Banning OP pesticides is a public health and justice issue.”

“Organophosphate pesticides have harmed generations of farmworkers and their families. As the people who bear the brunt of the damaging health effects from the pesticides applied to our crops, it is past time to protect farmworkers and their children by ending the use of these particularly toxic chemicals,” said Bruce Goldstein, President, Farmworker Justice.

“Farmworkers and their families have faced heavy exposure to organophosphate pesticides for far too long. Use of these dangerous pesticides must be ended,” said Anne Katten, Pesticide and Work Health and Safety Specialist, CRLA Foundation.

“Production of food for our tables should not put at risk the neurodevelopment of children nor poison farmworkers. EPA must now side with public health, not corporate profit, and ban organophosphates,” said Mark Magaña, president & CEO of GreenLatinos.

“Latino and Latina workers and their families have long suffered disproportionately from the impact of organophosphate pesticides because of their line of work or proximity to fields in which these toxic nerve agents are used. We must ensure that this structural injustice that is poisoning our communities is eradicated,” said Jose Vargas, national president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.

“Farmworkers and their children, the health professionals who serve them, and others all agree, we cannot regulate away these hazards. OPs must be banned,” said Margaret Reeves, Pesticide Action Network.

“We need to stop neurotoxic pesticides from tainting the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the fruits and vegetables we eat,” said Penny Richards from the Learning Disabilities Association of America, who was exposed to pesticides while pregnant and now her adult son has learning disabilities. “Given the science, organophosphates have no place in food.”

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