EPA Sued for
Failing to Protect Farm Children
(Beyond Pesticides, June 9, 2005) A lawsuit was filed on June 7, 2005 against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to protect a generation of America’s most vulnerable children that face increased risk from exposure to hazardous pesticides. The suit was filed on behalf of the children by a coalition of farm workers, environmental and public health groups, charging the agency with ignoring the special risk to children growing up surrounded by the swirl of chemical poisons on farms.
More than a million children of farm workers live near farms in this country, and more than 300,000 farmers’ children under the age of six live on farms. These children are particularly exposed to hazardous pesticides, from their food, the air, soil and water, and even from the clothes of their parents, according to a growing body of scientific evidence. Kids are especially vulnerable to toxic effects of pesticides on their developing brains, and bodies. The plaintiffs charge that EPA has failed to consider farm kids’ heightened exposure risks when setting allowable pesticide standards for food.
“Children of farm workers breathe pesticides that drift from the fields, and they often live, play, and go to school right next to pesticide-treated orchards,” said Erik Nicholson of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, which represents tens of thousands of farm workers whose families can be exposed to pesticides. “It’s common sense to protect our kids, but EPA is ignoring them.”
“Congress required EPA to set pesticide levels on food that provide a reasonable certainty of no harm to America’s children, including those living on or near farms,” said Michael Wall, senior attorney with NRDC, who represents the plaintiffs. “EPA has abdicated its responsibility.”
Under the 1996 law, the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), EPA is required to account for specific factors when setting tolerance levels for chemical pesticide residues that consumers and “major identifiable subgroups” of consumers may be exposed to. In October 1998, the plaintiffs petitioned EPA to identify farm children as meriting special protection. The groups are suing EPA for failing to respond to the petition within a reasonable amount of time.
“We can no longer wait patiently while we hear every day from communities and individuals directly affected by toxic pesticides,” said Margaret Reeves, Ph.D., senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America. “It’s time to light a fire under EPA to force it to act to protect farm children’s health.”
Scientists say children are particularly susceptible to pesticide exposure, both because their bodies and brains are still developing and because they eat more fruits and vegetables and drink more water (for their size), and have more hand-to-mouth contact with dust, dirt and floors. They come into contact with pesticides that drift from fields into their homes, play areas and schools. When parents return from fields, their children are exposed to hazards simply from touching their clothing, hair and skin. Farm children often play near recently sprayed fields and sometimes swim in irrigation canals filled with pesticide-contaminated water.
The plaintiffs say EPA is ignoring growing scientific evidence that farm children face increased health risks because of pesticide exposure. The exposure is linked to neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, reduced cognitive functioning and reduced coordination; developmental delays in infants and children; reproductive harms, such as infertility, stillbirths, birth defects and musculoskeletal defects; and cancer, including brain tumors, leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, sarcoma and Wilm’s tumor.
“Studies have shown elevated levels of pesticides in the homes and cars of farming families that are absorbed by workers and their children,” said Shelley Davis, co-executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and board member of Beyond Pesticides. “Put together with evidence of increased rates of cancer and birth defects among farm workers and their children, this research raises a red flag,” said Davis.
The lawsuit was filed against EPA and its administrator, Stephen Johnson, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The plaintiffs are Pesticide Action Network North America; United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO; NRDC; Clean Water Action; and Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. Farmworker Justice Fund and NRDC are serving as co-counsel for the plaintiffs. The groups’ lawsuit asked the court to rule that EPA’s failure to respond to their petition was unlawful and to compel the agency to respond within 90 days.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 1 million members and e-activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Farmworker Justice Fund Inc., is a non-profit education and advocacy group, based in Washington D.C., that works to improve the living and working conditions of migrant farmworkers and their families.
In related news, recently Beyond Pesticides took action against the state of Florida on behalf of a community in Immokalee, Florida seeking action for three babies born to farmworkers with severe birth defects. The babies were linked only by the tomato fields, in which their mothers picked from, according to the Associated Press and the Miami Herald One baby was born without arms or legs. The other was born with Pierre Robin syndrome, which results in an underdeveloped jaw that causes his tongue to fall into his throat with the risk of choking and the third child was missing a nose, ear, and sexual organs, and died after three days.
The three women who gave birth to these babies and the fathers all lived within 200 feet of one another at the same migrant labor camp in Immokolee, called Tower Cabins and all tomatoes when they became pregnant in 2004. However, Dale Dubberly, chief, Bureau of Compliance Monitoring, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, told The Palm Beach Post that the defects ”may have nothing to do with pesticides, but we’ll try to get the facts.”