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  • Growers in agricultural areas like Oxnard, California, make heavy use of fumigants that are linked with asthma, cancer and birth defects.

    Growers in agricultural areas like Oxnard, California, make heavy use of fumigants that are linked with asthma, cancer and birth defects. | Photo: AFP

Published 14 June 2017

Schools and neighborhoods primarily populated by working-class immigrants and farmworkers suffer widespread exposure to the dangerous chemicals.

Farmworker advocacy and health organizations filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after the EPA postponed moves to protect workers and agricultural communities from the deadly neurotoxin Chlorpyrifos, the active ingredient in widely-used pesticides.

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Earlier in the year, EPA head Scott Pruitt delayed a decision to ban the insecticide, calling the scientific consensus on the chemical's harmful effects “unresolved.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Pesticide Action Network North America, the Farmworker Association of Florida, United Farm Workers, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste and California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

For years, public health experts, community organizations and scientists alike have pushed to ban the chemical, an endocrine disruptor which can lead to serious health issues including “adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects,” according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. By some estimates, anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 are poisoned by such pesticides annually.

“When I was pregnant with my third child, I was mixing and handling pesticides in a local nursery. I was never given proper training or personal protective equipment, nor was I under the supervision of a certified applicator,” Yesica Ramirez of the Farmworker Association of Florida said in a statement released by Earthjustice.

“My baby was born with craniosynostosis, a birth defect, plus, eczema, and sleep apnea. I will never know if the pesticides caused this, but I do know that it is important to have stronger regulations for certified applicators to protect the health of our farm workers and our families.”

The lawsuit charges the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump with allowing the adverse health issues resulting from the chemical's application to continue by delaying new regulations on the certification and training of pesticide applicators, which were set to be implemented on March 6. The rule would have required that applicators no longer be minors, must be able to read and write, and must attend annual safety training where in-language lessons would be provided on the dangers of restricted use pesticides, among other revised standards that the EPA had estimated would prevent nearly 1,000 acute illnesses per year.

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"There is no doubt whatsoever that more detailed annual training is essential to provide the protections that pesticide applicators and their families need," said PANNA senior scientist Margaret Reeves.

While products containing Chlorpyrifos such as bug sprays were banned from home use in 2000, the chemicals continued to be a mainstay in U.S. agriculture, where growers used the chemical on fruit, vegetables and orchard crops in California, Washington and the Southeast and on corn and soybean crops in the Midwest. One fifth of all Chlorpyrifos are applied on farms across California.

The chemical is manufactured by agro-chemical giant Dow, which also manufactures Chloropicrin, a similarly dangerous insecticide used during the First World War as a “vomiting gas” in trench warfare which is now heavily applied to fruit crops in areas like California's Monterey and Ventura Counties. Schools and neighborhoods primarily populated by working-class immigrants and farmworkers suffer widespread exposure to the dangerous chemicals that result in long-term health problems, including cancer, asthma and birth defects.

Last month, 47 workers in a cabbage field near Bakersfield, California, fell ill after being exposed to the Chlorpyrifos-heavy chemical Vulcan, leading to vomiting and sickness, as well as hospitalization in one worker's case. As is often the case, the workers are afraid of receiving medical treatment for fear of being turned over to immigration authorities.

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