EPA faces suit over farm use of once-banned insecticide
The government continues to let farmers spread a controversial pesticide on the state's apple orchards, even though it has admitted the...
Seattle Times environment reporters
The government continues to let farmers spread a controversial pesticide on the state's apple orchards, even though it has admitted the chemical may pose unacceptable health risks to farmworkers and their children, according to a lawsuit being filed today.
Farmworker advocates are suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), claiming the agency re-authorized the use of the powerful insecticide called chlorpyrifos before fully understanding how it may harm those who spray it on fruit orchards and vegetable fields.
"This stuff is really bad," said Carol Dansereau, executive director of the Farm Worker Pesticide Project, an advocacy group based in Seattle and Yakima.
Chlorpyrifos, once sold as Dursban, was found in flea collars and was commonly used in homes to kill roaches, termites and ants. It was the most widely used household pesticide in the United States until June 2000, when the EPA banned most home use. In doing so, the agency said chlorpyrifos caused nausea, dizziness and vomiting, and in large doses, paralysis and death. Children were particularly susceptible.
At the time, the agency said farmworkers who mix the chemical, sold for farms as Lorsban, or apply it using backpack sprayers or open-cab tractors, faced a potentially unacceptable level of risk. The agency also said it needed to learn how chlorpyrifos drifting from nearby fields or tracked home on clothing could harm children.
But last summer, the EPA reauthorized its use on farms without resolving those issues, according to the lawsuit, to be filed in federal court in California.
"They promised to come back and look at these risks, and never did," said Patti Goldman, a Seattle attorney with the environmental firm Earthjustice.
In Washington, chlorpyrifos is sprayed on 58 percent of apple orchards, usually in March before the trees bloom, to battle a variety of pests. Its use has declined from a peak of 360,000 pounds in 1997 to 187,000 pounds in 2005 as a result of earlier EPA bans, an industry transition to organic growing and the use of some alternative pesticides.
Mike Willett of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents fruit growers, said the EPA's initial assessments hadn't taken into account that people who apply the pesticide wear protective clothing that reduces exposure. He said blood sampling hadn't shown workers regularly getting sick, and maintained the chemical was important to Washington fruit-growing.
"Everybody understands there is risk, but they can successfully mitigate that risk with proper gear," Willett said.
But health experts maintain too little is known.
In 2006, the Farm Worker Pesticide Project found chlorpyrifos floating in the air outside farmworkers' homes. The state Department of Health now plans to monitor the air around farms. A study in the medical journal Pediatrics found high levels of chlorpyrifos delayed mental and physical development in kids.
And a three-year study of blood samples from Washington farmworkers found that some working around chlorpyrifos had such depressed levels of important liver enzymes, an indicator of pesticide exposure, that the farms' pesticide use needed review.
Still, "it's not absolutely certain that people are getting sick at these levels of exposure," said Matt Keifer, a physician and associate professor of public health at the University of Washington.
At the same time, Keifer said, worker advocates have a "legitimate complaint" that the EPA didn't try to learn more.
"There's a lot riding on this," he said. And "I don't remember EPA calling for study proposals seeking more information on worker exposure. That's a shame, because by now we might have had some."
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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