The Pesticide Industry vs. Consumers: Not a Fair Fight
This story was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, where Lee Fang is a reporting fellow.
In a small regulatory office in Sacramento, California, in 2007, a handful of farmworkers and scientists gathered to explain to state officials why chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide, should be considered a toxicant under Proposition 65, a state law that pro hibits businesses from discharging substances known to cause birth defects and reproductive harm into the drinking water.
Chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide, was first developed as a cousin to the nerve agents stockpiled during World War II. The chemical has been banned for household use for more than a decade, and studies have shown that infants born to mothers with high levels of chlorpyrifos in their bodies have significantly higher rates of neurodevelopmental disorders, problems with in utero development, brain impairments, low birth weights and endocrine disruption.
Workers who handle produce, though less at risk, are also endangered by exposure to chlorpyrifos, a chemical sprayed to kill worms and other pests. Many have been found to experience headaches, seizures and bouts of vomiting.
But in the agricultural fields of America, where mostly migrant laborers and their families work to produce almonds, corn, peaches, grapes, alfalfa and other crops, chlorpyrifos is still applied with regularity. The chemical is known to stay on the bodies and clothing of workers when they return home to their families, and it easily drifts with the wind into local community buildings—from daycare centers and hospitals to churches and playgrounds. California farmers use about 1.3 million pounds of it every year.
Remembering that meeting in Sacramento, Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), recalls that people critical of chlorpyrifos “each got one to two minutes to speak.” Then came the scientists working for Dow Chemical, the principal manufacturer of the chemical in the United States.
“There were five Dow scientists, and they each got five to ten minutes. It was mind-boggling, the preference for their input over the victims and the consumer rights advocates and the farmworker advocates,” says Dr. Reeves.
The advocates have also been overpowered financially by the industry. Over the last decade, PAN has spent about $21,000 on lobbying in Sacramento. Dow, meanwhile, has spent more than $1.2 million on lobbying in the California capital during the same period.
In the end, chlorpyrifos was not deemed by the state to be a toxic substance subject to regulation under California’s Prop 65.
This imbalance of power in favor of industry also prevails at the national level, stalling progress in Washington on protecting farmworkers from dangerous chemicals used in agriculture.
In 1996, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act, which required the EPA to create standards for protecting children from pesticide use by 2006. That deadline has long since passed, and critics argue there has not been enough regulatory action. The EPA has also refused a request from PAN North America and the Natural Resources Defense Council for a ban on chlorpyrifos.
Finally, in January of this year, the EPA opened for public comment a rule on evaluating the environmental and human health risks caused by pesticide drift from farms into nearby areas, including homes and schools. And last month, the agency released a long-awaited proposal to update safety laws regarding the handling of pesticides by farmworkers.
But pesticide manufacturers are poised to beat back the EPA’s efforts. CropLife America—a trade group for companies including Dow, Bayer and DuPont that spends more than $14 million a year on research and advocacy—is not only in close communication with the EPA; it has worked with congressional allies to block the agency’s attempts at regulation. The organization called on Representative Darrell Issa of California, chair of the House Oversight Committee, to investigate the administration for pursuing agricultural regulations, including the so-called “spray-drift” rules. According to CropLife officials, these reforms “unnecessarily cost farmers time, money and liability, and significantly impact U.S. agriculture and the economy.” In response, Issa has held multiple hearings to undermine the EPA—under the guise of protecting “Job Creators Still Buried by Red Tape,” as one session relating to the EPA regulations on pesticides was titled.
Dow Chemical and other companies are relying on close ties forged with other legislators, particularly those in the Republican Party. In addition to Issa’s committee, a number of GOP legislators have sponsored amendments to appropriation bills that would block EPA action on pesticide rules. The recently passed farm bill included a bipartisan amendment exempting certain forms of pesticide pollution from enforcement under the Clean Water Act.
Farmworker advocates can bring few political resources to the table, but the pesticide industry extends the promise of re-election to its allies. After the Supreme Court enabled unlimited corporate spending in politics with its Citizens United decision, Dow Chemical increased its contributions to politically active nonprofits. The company hiked donations to the US Chamber of Commerce from $1.7 million in 2009 to more than $2.9 million in 2012. These funds augmented the $644,143 in direct contributions made by Dow’s political action committee to largely Republican federal candidates in the last election.
In a troubling display of post–Citizens United politics, the American Chemistry Council, another trade group funded by Dow and other pesticide producers, began airing campaign-style advertisements in favor of industry-friendly politicians, even those in safe seats. In many cases, the ads have aired well more than a year before the election, a visible reminder that allegiance to chemical companies comes with political rewards.
Although studies in California suggest that a shift from chlorpyrifos to less toxic pesticides would come at minimal cost to farmers, the transition has been slow. And for Dow, which manufactures two chlorpyrifos-based products, Dursban and Lorsban, the status quo is quite lucrative: the company, which produces a range of chemical products, generated over $4.8 billion in profits last year.
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