By Virginia E. Ruiz
Director of Occupational & Environmental Health
On this Earth Day, let’s take a moment to remember the communities that toil in the farm fields, orchards, nurseries and greenhouses to produce the abundance of fruits, vegetables and decorative plants that grace American tables and homes. Agricultural workers are routinely exposed to high levels of pesticides in the fields where they work and in the communities where they live. Their persistent exposure to pesticides results in thousands of reported pesticide poisonings, illnesses and injuries each year. Even the children of farmworkers cannot avoid exposure due to the proximity of their homes, schools and playgrounds to the fields where pesticides are applied. In its most recent quadrennial public policy agenda, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of 46 of the nation’s preeminent Latino organizations, called for strong enforcement of existing public health and environmental laws, including the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act and the Food Quality Protection Act, which regulate the registration and use of pesticides.
In 2000, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA ) banned the use of the neurotoxin chlorpyrifos in residential settings because of emerging evidence that it posed unacceptable risks to young children. But the agency allowed continued use of the pesticide in agriculture, resulting in exposure to the children of farmworkers and other rural residents. In the 17 years since, this double standard has exposed generations of farmworker children through airborne drift, water contamination, and even the residues on their parents’ work clothes. A growing body of evidence shows that prenatal exposure to very low levels of chlorpyrifos causes brain damage to children. Chlorpyrifos is a highly neurotoxic insecticide developed from World War II-era nerve gas. In addition to the developmental dangers it poses to babies, exposure can cause dizziness, vomiting, convulsions, numbness in the limbs, loss of intellectual functioning and death. Every year, workers and bystanders report illness and injury from exposure.
Last November, the EPA issued a human health risk assessment that recognized the scientific evidence of harm from exposure to even low levels of chlorpyrifos. In its assessment, EPA scientists found that there are no safe levels of the pesticide in food or water, that unsafe exposures to farmworkers continue on average 18 days after applications, and that workers who mix and apply chlorpyrifos are exposed to unsafe levels even when using protective gear. The Food Quality Protection Act requires EPA to cancel uses of a pesticide after a finding that it cannot be used safely on food. However, despite these important findings, on March 29th, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected the Agency’s own science and refused to ban further agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos.
Public outcry in response to the EPA’s decision was swift after major media outlets reported the action. Earlier this week, The Guardian covered the effect of EPA’s action on farmworker families in Tulare county, California, where chlorpyrifos is heavily used.
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. EPA must uphold its mission to protect human health and the environment.