Pesticide That Trump’s EPA Refused to Ban Blamed for Sickening Farm Workers

Farm workers in California. Large doses of the chlorpyrifos chemical can cause convulsions and even death. (photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

Pesticide That Trump’s EPA Refused to Ban Blamed for Sickening Farm Workers

By Oliver Milman, Guardian UK

21 May 17

Nearly 50 farm workers experienced nausea and vomiting apparently caused by a pesticide whose scheduled ban was overturned by the Trump administration

pesticide that was set to be banned before the Trump administration reversed course has been blamed for causing sickness to nearly 50 farm workers who were exposed to the chemical in California.

Spraying of Vulcan, a brand name chemical, on an orchard southwest of Bakersfield led to the pesticide drifting to a neighboring property operated by Dan Andrews Farms. A total of 47 farm workers were harvesting cabbage at the time and subsequently complained of a bad odor, nausea and vomiting. One was taken to hospital with four other workers visiting doctors in the following days.

Glenn Fankhauser, agricultural commissioner of Kern County, said samples of cabbage and clothing have been taken to the state lab for testing. The tests are still underway to confirm the cause but the primary ingredient of Vulcan is chlorpyrifos, a toxic pesticide that was on course to be banned by the Obama administration before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided against implementing a ban in March.

Dan Andrews, who runs the eponymous farm, said he doesn’t use chlorpyrifos despite it apparently infecting his workers.

“Unfortunately the wind moved it onto us, I’m not quite sure how it happened, thank God everyone’s OK,” he told Guardian US. “There were quite a few people feeling sick, some of them vomited, so we shut down the harvest.

“We are waiting for the investigation to conclude but I think they should ban (chlorpyrifos) to remove what’s causing the nausea. If it has had a history of incidents then it should be revisited and removed. Usually you worry about your own ranch, you don’t want to worry about other ranches. We are going to have to do due diligence before our shifts now.”

Chlorpyrifos is widely used in US agriculture, sprayed on crops such as corn, wheat and citrus. However, growing evidence of its impact upon human health led the EPA to agree with the chemical industry more than a decade ago that the product should not be used indoors to get rid of household bugs.

The pesticide has been linked to developmental problems in children such as lower birth weight, reduced IQ and attention disorders. Large doses of the chemical can cause convulsions and sometimes even death. People are exposed through spray drift, residues on food and water contamination.

Chlorpyrifos, which is produced by Dow Chemicals, can still be used for agricultural purposes but after a legal challenge by environmental groups, EPA scientists stated that the pesticide was not safe for any use and proposed widening the ban.

A subsequent ban of chlorpyrifos was rejected, however, under the new Trump administration. Scott Pruitt, administrator of the EPA, said he denied the ban to provide “regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos”. The EPA said there were “serious scientific concerns and substantive process gaps” in the plan to banish chlorpyrifos. The next review of the chemical isn’t scheduled until 2022.

Farmworker Justice, a group that advocates on behalf of agricultural employees, said the EPA has become too close to large chemical companies such as Dow.

“We were extremely disappointed with the EPA’s decision but the administration received a lot of pressure from industry and donors,” said Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and environmental health at Farmworker Justice. “I don’t have much confidence that the current administration will end the use of chlorpyrifos.”

Ruiz added: “These are the incidents we are afraid of because workers and their kids are particularly vulnerable to the effects of this pesticide. It’s not just the acute incidents but also low level exposures that are harmful to children. It’s a double standard to expect farm workers to be exposed to something that’s banned from homes.”