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Farmworkers Suing for Swift AZM Phase-out Have Their Day in Court

(Beyond Pesticides, February 26, 2008) The United Farm Workers of America, Beyond Pesticides and others, represented by lawyers from Earthjustice, argued in federal court that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to allow the use of azinphos-methyl until 2012 was unconscionable. The plaintiffs say EPA did not consider harm to farmworkers and their families, or to rivers, lakes and salmon, and the agency should be forced to reconsider.

“There are workers getting sick,” Patti Goldman, a lawyer for Earthjustice, told U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez. “This isn’t just hypothetical. There are workers being taken out of the field.”The AP reports that Cynthia Morris, a Justice Department lawyer who argued on the agency’s behalf, told the judge that the short-term benefits of allowing growers to keep using AZM for the next several years outweigh the potential harm. She argued that the agency’s decision was reasonable, and failed to meet the “arbitrary and capricious” standard for the judge to undo it.In November 2006, EPA decided that AZM poses unreasonable adverse effects and must be banned but allowed its continued use on fruit crops for six more years – until 2012 – and on nut crops for three more years – until 2009. The plaintiffs contend this phase-out period is too long because of the immediate and severe risks it poses to farm workers and their families.AZM is a highly neurotoxic organophosphate insecticide. Organophosphate insecticides attack the human brain and nervous system. Exposure can cause dizziness, vomiting, convulsions, numbness in the limbs, loss of intellectual function, and death. New alternatives have emerged that cost only slightly more and produce the same amount and quality of food crops. Farmworker families and communities are exposed to organophosphates through take-home exposures on clothing, contamination of cars and drift onto outdoor play areas.

In 2001, EPA found that AZM poses unacceptable risks to workers, but it allowed continued use of the pesticide for four more years because less toxic alternatives cost more to use. Farmworker advocates challenged that decision in federal court because EPA failed to take into account the costs of poisoning workers, exposing children, and polluting rivers and streams. To settle the lawsuit, EPA agreed to reconsider whether to ban AZM and announced its six-year phase-out.

“With safer alternatives already in widespread use, EPA has betrayed the trust of the men, women, and children whose health it is duty bound to protect by allowing this extremely hazardous pesticide to remain in use for six more years,” said Shelley Davis, attorney for Farmworker Justice. “It is time to make that shift now.”

Judge Martinez said he would rule as soon as possible.

The groups bringing the lawsuit are the United Farm Workers of America, Sea Mar Community Health Centers, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Beyond Pesticides, Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional, and Arnulfo Lopez, a farmworker in California.


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