Farmworkers File Suit to Stop Use of Two Pesticides

Pesticide Action Network Updates Service
Tuesday February 03, 2004

Farmworker groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle last month, charging the agency with ignoring important health data in 2001 when it re-approved use of two pesticides extremely hazardous to farmworkers. 

The pesticides, azinphos-methyl (AZM) and phosmet, are highly toxic organophosphates, derived from nerve agents developed during World War II and among the most powerful neurotoxins routinely used in the U.S. 

Acute exposure to organophosphates (OPs) can cause dizziness, vomiting, seizures, paralysis, loss of mental function, and death. 

AZM and phosmet are used extensively in such orchard crops as apples, peaches and pears, and are registered for use on 32 food crops. About 60 million pounds of OPs are applied to crops in the U.S. every year. 

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) Agricultural Chemical Database reports 1.5 million pounds of AZM and phosmet were applied agriculturally in 2001. Although both pesticides are used across the nation, Washington, Oregon and California growers are responsible for approximately half of all AZM and phosmet agricultural use in the U.S. 

In addition to occupational exposures to OPs, migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families often live where pesticides drift and settle, and are also exposed through "take-home" exposures on clothing, cars, and skin. Tests of dust in farmworker homes in Washington reported in Environmental Health Perspectives found 85 percent contained AZM residue, and a study published in Environmental Research found four to five times more chemicals in the bodies of farmworker children and people living within one quarter-mile of agricultural fields in Washington state than in the general population. 

The lawsuit charges that the EPA has continued to allow uses of these pesticides without considering the risks posed to workers, their children, and communities. "It is outrageous that U.S. EPA authorized the use of these pesticides, putting thousands of workers at risk of serious illness every year," said Erik Nicholson of the United Farmworkers of America (UFW). "These two pesticides can poison so many farmworkers that EPA found the risks unacceptable, but the agency still allowed them to be used." 

The EPA, while acknowledging that agricultural pesticide poisonings are severely underreported, has estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 agricultural workers are sickened each year by pesticides. No national system exists to track pesticide poisoning incidents, and attorneys report that officials in California, Oregon and Washington have all expressed concern for the adequacy of their state reporting systems. 

A 2003 survey of farmworkers by the Washington Department of Health found 75 percent of workers surveyed reported a job-related pesticide exposure. That survey also noted that workers often do not seek care for symptoms out of fear of employer reprisals, and a belief that doctors downplay symptoms due to state and employer pressures.  

AZM is the fourth most frequent pesticide associated with poisoning complaints in the state of Washington. According to UFW, about 30,000 workers in Washington's apple industry are potentially at risk from exposure to AZM and phosmet, with thousands more working in pear and cherry crops also at risk. 

The lawsuit argues that U.S. EPA analyzed the estimated economic value of using these two pesticides to farmers but failed to quantify the risks to people and the environment, discounted the use of safe and proven alternatives to these dangerous substances, and used industry-generated data without subjecting it to public comment, even though a federal law allows public input. 

AZM and phosmet also pose risks to wildlife, can poison fish, beneficial insects, and contaminate water supplies. USGS data indicate AZM is one of the pesticides most frequently exceeding levels for aquatic safety in U.S. surface waters. 

The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Seattle by attorneys with Earthjustice, Farmworker Justice Fund, California Rural Legal Assistance, and the Natural Resources Defense Council on behalf of Sea Mar Community Health Centers, UFW, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Beyond Pesticides, and Frente Indígena Oaxaqueña Binacional. 

PANUPS is produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a nonprofit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.