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"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. A growing body of scientific evidence confirms that children living on or near farms are exposed to pesticides from food, air, soil and water. The complaint argues that children of farm workers are exposed to pesticides that are carried into their homes on shoes, clothing, hair and skin and "even on a farmworker parent's embrace." Farm children may also play near recently sprayed fields, swim in irrigation canals and drink from wells with pesticide-contaminated water.
More than a million children of farm workers live near farms in the U.S. and more than 300,000 children under the age of six live on farms. Children are particularly susceptible to pesticide exposure because their bodies and brains are still developing and because they eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more water (for their size), and have more hand-to-mouth contact with dust, dirt and floors. Children are also especially vulnerable to toxic effects of pesticides on their developing brains, and bodies.
The suit argues that EPA is ignoring scientific evidence of increased health risks for farm children as pesticide exposure is increasingly 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. "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 plaintiffs charge that EPA has failed to consider farm kids' heightened exposure risks when setting allowable pesticide standards for food. 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.
Two years after the FQPA was passed, the plaintiffs petitioned EPA to identify farm children as meriting special consideration. The groups are now suing EPA for failing to respond to that 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."
The lawsuit was filed on June 7, 2005 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 asks 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.
Sources: Press Release, June 7, 2005, PANNA; Complaint, PANNA, UFW, NRDC, Clean Water Action and NCAMP vs. US EPA, http://www.panna.org; Trouble on the Farm: Growing up with pesticides in Agricultural Communities, 1998, NRDC.