National Farmworker Awareness Week Blog: Chlorpyrifos: It’s Time to End EPA’s Double Standard of Protection

National Farmworker Awareness Week Blog

Chlorpyrifos: It’s Time to End EPA’s Double Standard of Protection

We are pleased to share this blog, written by Director of Occupational & Environmental Health Virginia Ruiz, during National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW). NFAW is an annual week-long celebration of farmworkers and the contribution they make to society, and a reminder of progress yet to be made regarding farmworkers' health, safety, and rights. You can find out more about NFAW here

Cesar Chavez, whose legacy we are paying tribute to this week, spent many years calling attention to the consequences of pesticide use to the health of farmworker families and the environment in which they live. Farmworkers and their families 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 2000, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of the pesticide 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.  Nineteen years later, 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.

Exactly two years ago, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected the recommendations of the Agency’s own scientists and refused to ban further agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos. In the Agency’s November 2016 human health risk assessment  of chlorpyrifos, 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.   Chlorpyrifos is still used on agricultural crops across the country, including apples, strawberries, corn, nuts, citrus and Christmas trees. Each growing season exposes more workers and their families to this environmental contaminant.

While EPA delays action to ban this nerve agent, lawmakers at the state and federal level are taking action. Yesterday, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced the “Protect Children, Farmers and Farmworkers from Nerve Agent Pesticides Act of 2019.” Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) introduced similar legislation, the “Ban Toxic Pesticides Act of 2019,” earlier this year. These bills would ban all food uses of chlorpyrifos. Several state lawmakers have also introduced legislation to outlaw the pesticide in Maryland, New York, Connecticut, Oregon and California. Farmworker Justice applauds these efforts to take swift action where EPA has failed to uphold its mission to protect human health and the environment.