Paul Towers

Paul Towers

EPA gets it wrong on kids & drift

On Cesar Chavez Day, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) delivered a slap in the face to that day’s namesake. Five years after PAN and partners challenged the agency’s lack of protections for children from drifting pesticides — and eight years after Congress passed a law requiring it — the agency yet again failed to take any substantive action.

Frustrated yet? I am. EPA is suggesting it’s better to keep pesticides on the market without any new protections, even after acknowledging potentially serious impacts on children. In Monday’s response, EPA stated that “young children may have unique exposures that adults do not have.” And still, the agency has chosen to do next to nothing.

As my colleague and PAN’s policy director Kristin Schafer put it:

“The agency is completely disregarding the urgency of the risks these pesticides are posing, every day, to children’s health.”

Barely meeting a court-compelled deadline on Monday, EPA was responding to a lawsuit filed by farmworker, environmental and health groups — including PAN — in 2009. For five years, longer than my son has been alive, we have been pushing the agency to fulfill its mandate to protect children’s health from pesticides. What’s more, the agency should have already implemented protections three years ago.

What’s the hold up?

EPA’s inaction doesn’t just ignore its mission, but also the laws. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the agency to set standards to protect children by 2006. When no action was taken, we filed a legal petition. And when the agency failed to respond three years later, in July, we challenged the agency’s “unreasonable delay” in court.

The science highlighting necessary changes to EPA’s pesticide evaluation process is very clear. And new research and data reinforce what we know, namely that the agency needs to:

  • Include children’s susceptibility in its evaluation of the impacts of pesticides;
  • Protect children from drift when determining how pesticides can be used in agricultural settings;
  • Create modest no-spray buffer zones around places where children live, learn and play.

Current farmworker leaders remind us why action is needed. Erik Nicholson, National Vice-President of the United Farm Workers — a plaintiff in the case — put it this way:

“EPA’s refusal to act means another entire generation of children will be exposed to harmful pesticides — this is both unnecessary and unacceptable. And farmworker children currently bear and will bear the heaviest burden.”

On the same day the agency touted Cesar Chavez’s legacy on it’s website, it announced it won’t be taking meaningful action to better protect kids from pesticide drift. The contradiction is unnerving.

Sidestepping the issue

Digging into the details of the EPA’s non-response to the legal petition from PAN and partners, the agency fails to actually address the problems posed by pesticide drift. The summary? Business as usual. Literally. The conclusion of EPA’s response acknowledges that the agency fears pushback from the pesticide industry, rather than being committed to proactively standing up for children’s health.

EPA fears pushback from the pesticide industry, rather than being committed to proactively standing up for children’s health.

EPA officials are also hiding behind a process that may or may not produce the necessary changes for some years to come. They are accepting public comments on the way they are currently calculating drift — including immediate spray drift and volatilization drift that often occurs after applications.

It’s already evident that these models are flawed, and based on some bad assumptions. So it would be good news if they were updated to provide for a more robust risk assessment process — and better protections for kids. But it will likely be a long time before new models are completed. And even longer before they’re incorporated into the evaluations of new products, or re-evaluations of hazardous products that are already on the market.

No time to wait

As if the evidence wasn’t already compelling enough, two recent articles — one in The Nation and one in The Atlantic — explain the harms. As the body of evidence continues to grow, experts warn that we don’t have time to waste. The current regulatory system can’t move quickly enough to address the problems with pesticides already on the market, much less effectively evaluate the new ones.  

As Dr. Phillipe Grandjean, a Harvard School of Public Health professor profiled in several recent news stories — and author of a recent summary of the research of chemical impacts on children’s health — put it: “We don’t have the luxury to sit back and wait.”

And this should be a lesson to all of us. The farmworker leader and father Chavez spent much of the final years of his life discussing the harms of pesticides, especially to those most vulnerable to exposure. It’s time EPA officials took this to heart and put kids, rather than the pesticide industry, first.

Photo credit: steverts/iStock

Paul Towers

Paul Towers

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