Environmental groups sue EPA for failing to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure

As many as 1,000 acute illnesses could be prevented every year.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Health and farmworker organizations filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for postponing a decision to protect farmworkers from exposure to restricted-use pesticides such as chlorpyrifos — a controversial pesticide linked to serious health issues. The delay also prevents the agency from setting an age requirement prohibiting young farmworkers from applying such pesticides.

The lawsuit argues that the Trump administration’s decision to postpone the effective date for implementation of the Certification of Pesticide Applicators (CPA) rule could lead to adverse harmful health issues for farmworkers and other people. That revised CPA rule — originally published on January 4 with an implementation date of March 6 — would have, in part, imposed strict standards that require pesticide applicators to be at least 18 years old, be able to read and write, and establish an annual applicator safety training. Currently, there is no minimum age limit for the roughly one million certified applicators nationwide.

The lawsuit also states that the EPA failed to provide the public “adequate notice” to comment on rules to delay the effective date of implementation; failed to consider the adverse effects the delay would cause to farmworkers and their families regularly exposed to restricted use pesticides; and failed to consult with other government agencies to review environmental health consequences.

The CPA training would provide in-language lessons for people on the potential dangers of pesticide exposure, how to use equipment properly, how to prevent environmental contamination like runoff and drift, and how to report pesticide safety violations to enforcement agencies. The rule would also require training for aerial spray applications, so applicators would lessen the impact of the off-target movement of pesticides on plants, animals, and bystanders. A 2008 longitudinal government study found anywhere between 37 percent and 68 percent of acute pesticide-related illnesses are caused by pesticide drift into local communities.

Earlier this year, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed a decision to ban the restricted-use insecticide chlorpyrifos primarily used to systemically kill pests on agricultural crops. At the time, Pruitt’s agency rejected calls to ban the use of chlorpyrifos, claiming “the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved.”

Pruitt’s agency also put industry economic interests ahead of farmworker health safety, arguing that the continued use of chlorpyrifos would provide “regulatory certainty” for thousands of farms reliant on the pesticide and that more research was needed. His decision superseded the scientific recommendation made by the Obama administration supporting a gradual ban of chlorpyrifos. Past scientific research found a correlation between the pesticide and human health problems for farmworkers and children.

A 2012 Columbia University study found links between chlorpyrifos exposure and brain development and cognition issues in children and fetuses, even at exposure levels below the EPA threshold for toxicity. The EPA also found adverse risks among threatened and endangered species due to the pesticide.

The latest lawsuit comes days after seven states and several health and labor organizations directly challenged Pruitt’s decision, arguing that the EPA violated the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 which requires the protection of infants and children from harm by pesticides in food, water, and exposure to indoor pesticides.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the advocacy groups Farmworker Association of Florida, United Farm Workers, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and Pesticide Action Network North America.

Health and labor organizations, represented by the advocacy groups EarthJustice and Farmworker Justice, have strongly pressured the EPA to act on implementing the rule.

“EPA’s mission is to protect all Americans from significant risks to human health and yet it’s delaying life-saving information and training for the workers who handle the most toxic pesticides in the country,” Eve C. Gartner, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in a statement. “This delay jeopardizes everyone’s health and safety.”

In December 2016, the EPA said the rule could prevent upwards of 1,000 acute illnesses every year. Farmworkers — especially the two million immigrant farmworker labor force — are at the greatest risk of health problems because they’re most directly exposed to insecticides. Applicators mix and apply pesticides and can be exposed because of spills, splashes, defective, missing, or inadequate protective equipment, direct spray, or drift, according to Farmworker Justice. Farmworker families are also at risk because farmworkers bring home pesticides in the form of residue on their hair, skin, and clothing, or when pesticides drift into homes and schools near fields.

Immigrant farmworkers in particular are the least likely to receive health treatments or to file complaints because of fear of retaliation by employers. In one case, a woman whose fingernails turned black and skin peeled off her hands and face after pesticide exposure in Florida went to the doctor and didn’t file a complaint because she feared retaliation on her and her undocumented husband, the Palm Beach Post reported in 2003. In a 10-year period, less than eight percent of 4,609 violations of pesticide regulations in Florida resulted in fines, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And in May, several sick farmworkers in California left the scene when chlorpyrifos drifted into their field because they were likely afraid to confront medical members who could turn them into federal immigration authorities.