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.
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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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Dow has not only emerged as a powerhouse of traditional lobbying; it has also kept up the pressure on regulators in other ways. The company maintains a website, Chlorpyrifos Protects (chlorpyrifos.com), that gives the public an accessible platform for sending letters to the EPA opposing regulation.
Meanwhile, informational fact sheets distributed by Dow attempt to sow doubt about the potential health risks. “Since any substance can cause harm given sufficient exposure, nothing can be called ‘safe’ in absolute terms,” reads one chlorpyrifos white paper sponsored by the company. “A couple tablets of aspirin, for example, can relieve a headache. But an overdose of aspirin can be fatal.”
These efforts, however extensive, are only the more aboveground forms of advocacy. If the battle over atrazine, another controversial pesticide, is any indication, more subterranean lobbying is probably afoot.
As recent court documents reveal, Syngenta, the producer of atrazine, doled out grants to a wide array of public relations firms, political pundits and think tanks to discredit Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes, whose research found that atrazine causes reproductive deformities in frogs. (A recent article in The New Yorker by Rachel Aviv chronicled the company’s years-long campaign against Hayes.) Some tactics used by Syngenta were reminiscent of the ’90s-era tobacco wars, or the more recent attempts by the fossil-fuel industry to block action on climate change. Right-leaning think tanks—including the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise—were listed in Syngenta’s internal “third party stakeholder” database. Officials from some of the organizations on that list received contributions from Syngenta to place opinion pieces in local media defending atrazine. To win over journalists and scientists, Syngenta offered expense-paid trips to Switzerland, where the company is based.
But there were also some innovations in building influence. A Syngenta public relations document instructs company officials to purchase “Tyrone Hayes” as a search term on the Internet, “so that anytime someone searches for Tyrone’s material, the first thing they see is our material, not his,” according to filings with the Madison County Circuit Court in Illinois.
Syngenta officials also debated whether to encourage CropLife America, the pesticide trade association now fighting the spray-drift rule, to lead a pro-pesticide campaign to shift public opinion. Citing recent industry efforts to reshape the perception of biotechnology and the plastics industry, Syngenta concluded that “the public image of Syngenta would improve if the public image of pesticides/pesticide companies improved overall.”
Dow, meanwhile, is accused of conducting an underhanded campaign against critics of chemicals like chlorpyrifos and di- oxin. “Dow hired a private security firm to obtain confidential information about Greenpeace,” charges Charlie Cray, a research specialist with the environmental group. “The firm hired former intelligence and off-duty police officers to steal documents from Greenpeace’s offices and plant paid informants inside allied organizations.” Last year, after Greenpeace filed a lawsuit against Dow and other defendants, a Superior Court judge in Washington, DC, dismissed four of its claims—a decision the group is appealing—but allowed part of the suit to move forward. (Dow officials did not respond to requests for comment.)
In the current battle over pesticide regulation, Dow has given presentations to agricultural officials portraying groups like PAN as outside the mainstream. Last year, a Dow lobbyist in New Zealand attempted to downplay PAN’s arguments about chlori- pyrifos. In one slide, he argued that the pesticide must be safe because it is not listed as a toxicant under Prop 65 in California—a state in which Dow dominates the political process.
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While the larger efforts to control and regulate chlorpyrifos may have stalled, the EPA in February released a long-awaited rule to at least inform farmworkers of better safety standards for handling harmful pesticides. The original safety rule was created in the mid-1990s. Advocacy groups criticized it as weak and poorly enforced. An updated version was supposed to be released in 2008; why the EPA took another five-plus years to act remains a mystery.
The newly released rule builds on the existing regulations to ensure that all workers handling pesticides are at least 16 years old (except in cases of family farms). The rule also updates the law to ensure that workers will undergo training every year (rather than the previous standard of every five years) to learn about the health risks associated with pesticide use and how to handle these chemicals safely during application.
But along with that step forward, there has also been a step back. The EPA’s new standard removes a requirement that farms provide a central posting of information about pesticides. Under the new proposal, workers may obtain pesticide information if they ask for it, but the requirement that such information must be posted in an area where workers congregate has been eliminated.
So why the delays, and the arguably weakened pesticide safety rules? “Our best guess is that there has been very strong industry pushback,” says Dr. Reeves.
She might be on to something. White House logs show that just weeks before the EPA released the new worker-protection standard, there was at least one major meeting between administration officials and four senior officers from CropLife America.
Read all of the stories in this special report:
“How Pesticides Harm the Young Brain,” by Susan Freinkel
A pathbreaking study detects a range of developmental problems in children born to mothers who toiled in pesticide-treated fields—but will anything be done?
“6 Ways to Avoid Eating Pesticide Residue,” by Susan Freinkel
With regulation inadequate and children especially vulnerable, it makes sense for consumers to try to minimize exposure.