Advocates Challenge EPA’s Continuing Failure to Protect Children and Families From Hazardous Pesticide Drift

On July 24th, a coalition of farmworker, public health, and conservation advocates filed a challenge in the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect children from unsafe exposures to toxic pesticides.

The suit seeks an answer to a petition that the advocates filed with the agency in 2009, urging EPA to set safety standards protecting children who grow up near farms from the harmful effects of pesticide drift.

“It is not acceptable that our own government has so little regard for the health of our children,” said Janette Brimmer, an Earthjustice attorney representing the coalition “The government hasn’t even bothered to prepare a response to our requests.”

“As a mother, I’m appalled the EPA is failing to protect our children from dangerous pesticides,” said Bonnie Wirtz, a Minnesota mother who endured negative health effects when the pesticide chlorpyrifos drifted into her home as it was sprayed on a nearby alfalfa field.

Chlorpyrifos has been implicated in long-term health problems, including learning disabilities and other nervous system harms.

“It breaks my heart as a mother, to know there is nothing I can do to protect my child and other children from the harmful effects of these pesticides that are allowed to drift into our homes,” Wirtz explained. "I would love to see EPA finally take action to protect all of our children and grandchildren from harm.”

The petition asks EPA to immediately adopt no-spray buffer zones around homes, schools, parks and daycare centers for the most dangerous and drift-prone pesticides. In the nearly four years since the petition was filed, EPA has not responded or taken action. The law requires a response within a reasonable time. 

“The science is increasingly clear: children are especially vulnerable to pesticides, yet they continue to be exposed to pesticide drift, both at home and at school,” said Kristin Schafer, Policy Director for Pesticide Action Network. “Children have a right to protection from dangerous pesticides and should not have to wait years through multiple crop seasons to get a response from the government.”

The petition also asked EPA to:

  • Expeditiously evaluate exposure of children to pesticide drift and impose safeguards to protect children from pesticide exposures—a step Congress directed the agency to take by 2006.
  • Immediately adopt interim prohibitions on the use of toxic, drift-prone pesticides such as organophosphates and n-methyl carbamates near homes, schools, parks and daycare centers, or wherever children congregate.

At the time they filed their petition in 2009, the coalition highlighted the story of Luis Medellin and his three school-age sisters who live in the middle of an orange grove in Lindsay, CA. During the growing season, Luis and his family are awakened several times a week by the sickly smell of night-time pesticide spraying, followed by searing headaches, nausea and vomiting. Tests showed pesticides in Luis’s body, scaring him and causing worry about his little sisters.

Luis’s story is repeated in rural communities across the country year after year. The legal challenge submitted today highlights additional cases from California, Minnesota and Hawaii where children have experienced health harms from pesticide drift while the petition has been pending in front of EPA.

Yesterday's legal petition comes on the heels of a national farmworker fly-in, in which workers from across the country came to Washington, DC to meet with lawmakers and agencies. The goal was to draw attention to the health harms of pesticides faced by farmworker families, and the need for safer fields and orchards. 

“After a week of action on farmworker issues, we are especially mindful of the fact that protecting our children from exposure to dangerous pesticides is one of the most pressing issues we face,” said Farmworker Justice President, Bruce Goldstein. “We urge the administration and policy-makers to step up and quickly address this public health and justice problem before another season goes by.”

Studies show that farmworker children face even higher levels of pesticide exposure than other rural children or children in urban areas. In addition to pesticide drift from nearby fields and exposures through food residues faced by all children, farmworker children can face residues on clothes and equipment brought home from the field.

“Children have smaller bodies, they engage in hand-to-mouth behaviors, and they can’t break down toxins as well as adults, so they are especially vulnerable to pesticide exposures,” said Barbara Gottlieb, Director of Environment and Health at from Physicians for Social Responsibility. “The pesticides detected in drift monitoring are some of the most hazardous—chlorpyrifos, diazinon, endosulfan—and are associated with serious health effects, so preventive action is really critical.”

“The fact that EPA continues to allow dangerous pesticides to drift around family homes and the schools our children attend shows just how broken the regulatory system is” said Erik Nicholson of the United Farm Workers of America. "We call on EPA to start protecting members of farmworker communities and their neighbors across America from unsafe exposures to drifting toxic pesticides.”

In 1996, Congress required EPA to set standards by 2006 to protect children from pesticides. Seven years have passed since that deadline. The agency has made some progress—banning the use of some pesticides in the home and on lawns—but has failed to protect children from these same pesticides when they drift from treated fields into nearby yards, homes, schools, parks and daycare centers.

The petition for mandamus in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was filed by Janette Brimmer and Matthew Baca of Earthjustice and Virginia Ruiz of Farmworker Justice, on behalf of Pesticide Action Network of North America, Physicians for Social Responsibility, United Farm Workers, and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste.