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.