WASHINGTON, D.C. — Three years ago, neurological issues turned family life upside down for Alex B., a 24-year-old Oregonian, when his father, a longtime farmworker who picked broccoli, celery, and strawberries, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The family now believes his illness is connected to his regular exposure to a widely-used and controversial insecticide called chlorpyrifos, which has been linked to adverse side effects in humans.
“My dad’s situation may not be directly related to chlorpyrifos, but he did work in the field for a long time, and we believe that’s why he got sick,” Alex said. (He asked ThinkProgress not to disclose his last name after he spoke at a public press conference.)
Chlorpyrifos, an efficient insecticide, has been in wide use since the 1960s, but studies suggest that both direct and indirect exposure could lead to reduced IQ, loss of working memory, attention deficit disorders, and brain damage.
“I don’t think there’s a word in the English dictionary that describes how despicable [it is] that a neurotoxin that was used to hurt a population [of pests] when it was created is now hurting another kind of population today,” Alex said. “The science shows that this chemical — its purpose is to kill and it continues to do that by destroying families and futures.”
Alex’s father, who came to the United States as a migrant farmworker in the 1980s and has since become a U.S. citizen, lost his job because of the brain tumor, which has since been removed. Still, there are many more farmworkers like him, as well as people who simply live near farms, who are regularly exposed to chlorpyrifos and have suffered irreparable consequences.
That’s why Alex was in the nation’s capital Tuesday with a delegation of environmental groups, human rights activists, and congressional leaders to call for a ban on chlorpyrifos, a organophosphate insecticide used on crops like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and almonds.
Speaking in front of a crowd in a grassy lawn several paces from the Senate Building steps, the group was there to support a legislative bill coauthored by Senate Democrats to ban chlorpyrifos.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denied a petition to ban the insecticide, calling for more research. In March, environmental groups and state attorney generals challenged the decision, arguing that the use of chlorpyrifos at any amount was harmful and that the EPA hadn’t made new findings that could ensure its safe use. But on July 18, a federal appeals court supported the EPA’s decision to delay the petition. Now EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s agency has until 2022 to evaluate the risks of chlorpyrifos.
Titled “The Protect Children, Farmers and Farmworkers from Nerve Agent Pesticides Act of 2017” the bill requires the EPA to regulate or ban a pesticide if the agency cannot prove with “reasonable certainty” that it is safe. The bill also requires EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to partner with the National Research Council to assess the neurodevelopmental effects that organophosphate pesticides has on farmworkers and children.
The bill’s cosponsors include Senators Tom Udall (D-NM), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Edward J. Markey (D-MA).
“The chemical industry can and must do better than continue to push for the use of nerve agents in our food.”
“The chemical industry can and must do better than continue to push for the use of nerve agents in our food. This bill comes at a crucial time when scientific integrity and the protection of the public is compromised by industry collusion with the administration,” Andrea Delgado, legislative director of the Healthy Communities program at Earthjustice, said in a statement. “The most exposed and vulnerable among us are our children, farmworkers and families in rural communities, and they deserve action now.”
“This bill tells the chemical industry that our children’s health and safety are not for sale,” Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) President Rhea Suh said in another statement. “Families shouldn’t have to worry the fruits and veggies they feed their kids could do them harm. Farmworkers shouldn’t have to fear that they might be exposed to toxic pesticides in the fields or that their children or will be poisoned if it drifts into in their communities. Our leaders in Washington must stop playing politics with children’s health.”
Chlorpyrifos is produced by Dow Chemical and maintains that authorized uses of the product “when used as directed” is largely safe. Twenty days before Pruitt made his decision in March, his schedule showed that he met with Dow CEO Andrew Liveris for half an hour.
“Current regulatory safety standard for chlorpyrifos rests on five decades of experience in use, health surveillance of manufacturing workers and applicators, and more than 4,000 studies and reports examining the product in terms of health, safety and the environment,” a Dow spokesman said on Tuesday, according to Reuters. “Authorized uses of chlorpyrifos products, when used as directed, offer wide margins of protection for human health and safety.”
Yet farmworkers like Alex’s dad appear to be at high risk of adverse side effects because they are directly in contact with pesticides. Even when they can wear protective gear as they spray, they cannot control when and how other people may use it.
In May, several dozen farmworkers in Bakersfield, California became ill from pesticide drift after a nearby farm was sprayed with chlorpyrifos. Eileen, a 19-year-old farmworker and community college student who works on a cabbage farm during her summer vacation to supplement her income, was one of the people who grew dizzy and vomited after that incident.
“Along with her colleague, many of them got very sick,” Eriberto Fernandez, the research and policy coordinator at United Farm Workers Foundation, told ThinkProgress after the press conference. He said many of the farmworkers left by the time the first responders got to the scene because of the language barrier and a fear of authorities because some workers were undocumented.
“A big barrier for farmworkers — 70 percent of the workforce in the fields is undocumented — that’s a big reason why farmworkers don’t receive access to proper care,” Fernandez explained.
By virtue of their undocumented status, these people cannot qualify for the Affordable Care Act and are thus limited by affordable medical care options.
Fernandez worries that the EPA’s delay in implementing a series of farmworker protections on the federal level this year could mean more workers at risk of pesticide exposure. Those protections include better pesticide application trainings and enforcing an age limit of 18 years old for pesticide application. But even as the federal government loosens environmental regulations, Fernandez is hopeful that legislators in California are protecting farmworkers.
“We’re hoping in California that we can implement trainings for workers to make sure that like what happened on May 5, they’ll be well trained, well equipped to know what to do when they get sprayed,” Fernandez added. “It’s been three months, almost four months since then, and they have not received an official statement of what they were sprayed with. The process of investigation is so slow and so inadequate for farmworkers so they won’t know how to take care of their medical needs.”
Multiple studies have linked the insecticide with lowered IQ, attention deficit disorders, autism, and human health issues. At Tuesday’s press conference, two doctors from Mount Sinai in New York, who helped to produce a report on pesticides in the diets in infants and children, pointed out that three major longitudinal studies of pregnant women have found chlorpyrifos exposure negatively impacted children.
“All three of these studies show very clearly that exposure of unborn children in the womb to chlorpyrifos results during pregnancy in brain damage,” Dr. Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai said. “One of the fascinating and terrifying findings that came out of the follow-up studies of these children is that there are anatomic and functional changes in these children that are visible on fMRI.”
“What’s known about these studies is that these are very low-level usages of exposure from residential use and ingestion from pesticide residue on foods — these are not occupational studies, evidencing that children are vulnerable to these pesticides at low levels,” Dr. Megan Horton, another doctor from Mount Sinai said.