"Spray drift" is the name given to droplets of pesticides that land anywhere they are not supposed to — like on people's heads, in lakes and streams, or on crops in neighboring fields. It can cause illness, damage crops, and harm ecosystems. And so in 2007 the EPA began trying to figure out how to do better job of keeping it from happening.
EPA regulates spray drift by making pesticide companies put statements on product labels that say things like, "Do not apply this product in a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift," or "Do not apply when weather conditions favor drift from treated areas." But not all products carry such prohibitions and different variations are in circulation. Few labels explicitly mention protecting bystanders or residents' yards from drift. All this inconsistency makes it hard for state agencies to enforce these rules. In fact, most states are reluctant to even investigate spray drift complaints from residents.
Most states are reluctant to even investigate spray drift complaints from residents.
Late in 2009, the EPA proposed standardizing spray drift labeling, putting the same statement on the labels of all pesticides. Their proposed language was a step in the right direction but it wasn't great, and we told them so. The pesticide industry didn't like it either, though for different reasons: they didn't want to be on the hook for chemicals drifting out of fields.
Stuck in the middle, the EPA floated a more industry-friendly proposal on a call with industry and environmental groups last week:
Do not apply this product in a manner that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift. In addition, do not apply this product in a manner that results in spray drift that harms people or any other non-target organism or site.
Burden of proof
This statement may look innocuous at first glance, but it essentially legalizes drift as long as it doesn't hurt anyone or anything. The EPA's previous proposal also proscribed drift that "could cause an adverse affect." And the burden of proving harm? That falls to the victim, who is usually a farmworker. Despite the fact that they have the third most dangerous job in the country, farmworkers are not covered by U.S. labor laws and are reluctant to say anything that might put their jobs in jeopardy. Having to prove harm also means only acute sickness will be considered; repeated and prolonged exposure to drifting carcinogens and endocrine disruptors will basically get a pass as long as the chronic drift exposures are not accompanied by acute illness.
As an activist from "our side" noted on the call, EPA shouldn’t be legalizing the exposure of people to toxic chemicals without their knowledge or consent. Meanwhile, a representative from CropLife, the pesticide industry's trade group, thought that holding sprayers responsible for drift even when harm can be proven was still more liability than they ought to have to shoulder.
We'll keep you posted with how this plays out.