The Trump administration’s stubborn refusal to clean up its broken pesticide-regulatory system is now on trial in the federal courts, and workers’ advocates hope to push the EPA to follow through on a long-standing plan to ban a major pesticide that has been linked to brain damage.
Last March, as one of Scott Pruitt’s first actions as EPA chief, the notoriously anti-regulatory regulator (who has since been ousted) unraveled a hard-fought measure to ban crop usage of chlorpyrifos, available on the market from Dow Chemical under the brand name Lorsban, one of the most dangerous pesticides in US agriculture. The agency claimed the scientific evidence of health risks had been “inconsistent.” But a meeting Pruitt held shortly before the decision was issued was perfectly consistent with Pruitt’s record as a corporate lawyer for polluters: He spoke with Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris briefly just a few days before ending the ban, suggesting that the agency’s calculations were more political than scientific.
Labor and public-health advocates are now challenging the unbanning of Lorsban in federal court. In July a coalition of environmental-justice groups, represented by EarthJustice, made final arguments accusing the EPA of ignoring massive scientific evidence linking prenatal and childhood exposure to chlorpyrifos—one of the most common substances used to kill pests on industrial crops—to severe neurodevelopmental impacts like low birthweight, reduced IQ scores, and damaged memory.
Following Pruitt’s decision, an opposition letter issued by the American Academy of Pediatricians warned that failure to restrict chlorpyrifos contradicted a “wealth of science demonstrating the detrimental effects of chlorpyrifos exposure to developing fetuses, infants, children, and pregnant women.” The wealth of the chemical industry spoke louder, apparently: Dow Chemical sunk more than $13 million into anti-regulatory lobbying in Washington the same year that Trump was elected.
Shortly after the election, the EPA issued its own risk assessment on the pesticide, which affirmed past studies showing that harmful exposures are ubiquitous in and around farm fields. All food and water exposures were deemed generally unsafe—with toddlers exposed at about 140 times the safe level. Private household use of chlorpyrifos was banned about 20 years ago, but it continues to be widely used in industrial agriculture today.
“The way our law works, there’s a higher standard…for protecting people from the residue that’s on our food and water,” says EarthJustice attorney Patti Goldman. With the focus on consumer safety, “EPA applied this standard 20 years ago to protect children from exposures in their homes, but has not protected children in rural areas from drift or our food and drinking water.” If Pruitt’s decision stands, farmworkers’ children may have to wait until at least 2022 for relief—when chlorpyrifos and other pesticides are due for another formal safety review. The court is expected to rule in the coming weeks or months.
In a joint statement with advocates ahead of the final arguments in court, Hector Sanchez Barba of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement pointed out that, with an agricultural workforce that is overwhelmingly Latino, “the negative health impacts of pesticides disproportionately affect Latino families. Our communities can no longer be exposed to these toxic chemicals.”
According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, farmworkers experience persistent, long-term pesticide exposure through various points of contact: Chemical residues travel home with workers “because of drift from nearby areas…and bringing home work clothes that have been contaminated.” One survey of farmworkers in North Carolina found that a quarter “were asked to enter fields before it was safe to do so,” and the majority had never received instruction on pesticide safety from a supervisor. Just 15 percent were given protective gear; most weren’t even given soap to wash up. Besides, the systemic degradation across this impoverished, unstable workforce often leaves workers powerless to challenge unsafe conditions: A picker can’t just walk away from a contaminated field when their family has to live downwind in the boss’s housing encampment, or when they don’t have the papers they need to find a safer job, or when in-house doctors want to avoid giving a diagnosis that would lead to medical bills for the employer.
In the campaign to ban chlorpyrifos, Claudia Angulo, a mother and former farmworker in San Joaquin Valley, testified that her son was born with a mental disability around the time she worked on a crew that handled crops treated with chlorpyrifos. Other women she worked with have seen their children’s health similarly impacted by skin, lung, and heart problems, as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. While the government insists the science is inconclusive, to Angulo, the threat to her community couldn’t be clearer.
On Pruitt’s decision suspend the chlorpyrifos ban, she argued, “How can this toxic pesticide still be used on food crops? Ultimately, these same crops are hand-picked by farmworkers and eaten by kids…. To know that thousands of unborn babies are at risk of preventable conditions is disturbing.”
This summer, though, some communities are taking action on their own, in the absence of the EPA’s refusal to regulate agricultural chemicals. A coalition of farmworker unions and public-health groups have been building a voluntary labor-safety program known as Equitable Food Initiative, which combines principles of community empowerment and labor equity with worker-driven health and safety training. So far, nearly 30,000 workers have been trained on issues ranging from pesticide safety to sexual-violence prevention and workplace rights. Though the program does not ban pesticides outright, it does encourage sustainable production and ensures baseline health protections, along with fair wages and stronger transparency standards on disclosing chemical risks. According to Margaret Reeves of Pesticide Action Network, the hope is that over time, “as a growing number of large-scale produce growers demonstrate the economic viability of EFI, [the] practices will, eventually, be required by law.”
The question, though, is when the law will finally evolve to meet the needs of communities. Hawaii and other states have recently advanced localized bans on chlorpyrifos. However, federal regulation, under the current administration, isn’t just stagnating but sliding backward. Every day that the case against chlorpyrifos drags on in court, its poison trail stretches a little deeper into the next generation of families in the field.