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Trouble on the Farm
Growing Up with Pesticides in Agricultural Communities

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Chapter 7


All children are surrounded by pesticides, although evidence suggests that farm children receive greater exposures from more sources than other children. Cumulative exposures from all sources can result in significant health risks. When exposures have been evaluated, they frequently approach or exceed the "safe" reference dose for individual pesticides. The Food Quality Protection Act requires that U.S. EPA take into account all routes of pesticide exposure in tolerance decisions. In addition, any exposures must be shown to pose a negligible risk to children.

Although the exposure data are limited, particularly with regard to migrant farmworker children, and lack the large study sizes that would allow quantitative extrapolation, there is ample evidence that children are exposed to pesticides through food, water, indoor and outdoor air, soil, dust and skin contact with contaminated surfaces. All of these routes must be considered in making the determination, as required by the FQPA, that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm to children. In the case of children living on agricultural land and children whose families work in the fields, there is now sufficient scientific evidence to indicate that take-home exposures do occur. As a result, even pesticides that are labeled for agricultural use only can reach children who live in these homes. It is not sufficient to conclude that because a pesticide is not registered for household use that no household exposures occur.

The research we have compiled for this report suggests that the organophosphate pesticides pose a particular threat to farm children. These are ubiquitous chemicals that share common acute and chronic effects. Some persist in the environment, particularly indoors, and pose a combined risk of neurotoxicity. They are used on crops as well as in the household and therefore are found in most household dust and air. Several studies have found levels of organophosphates in dust and on the hands of children that are likely to lead to significant exposure.

Further investigations of farm children are needed. Larger-scale exposure assessment studies will confirm and further quantify the extent of exposure among this group of children. Health assessments are also necessary to evaluate the existence of current health impacts related to pesticide exposures. However, we cannot await absolute scientific proof of harm while allowing known exposures to continue unabated. Adequate evidence already exists to demonstrate a public health problem. This evidence should justify action to protect the most exposed and most vulnerable among us from these poisons. If we protect this sentinel population of farm children, then we are more likely to protect all children. NRDC's recommendations for immediate action follow. (For an additional discussion of recommendations raised by farmworker groups, see Protecting Farmworker Children from Pesticide Exposure: Recommendations of a Farmworker Coalition, September 1998, Farmworker Justice Fund, Washington, DC.)

Regulatory Protection

  • Designate farm children as a sentinel group that needs to be considered and protected in all tolerance decisions under the FQPA. If the higher levels and additional routes of exposure experienced by farm children are not considered in setting tolerances, this violates the child protection provisions of the law.

  • Address current data gaps with regard to excess exposures among farm children by including an additional tenfold safety factor into threshold-based risk assessments for food tolerances. The FQPA requires use of such a tenfold factor unless U.S. EPA can demonstrate, based on reliable data, that all infants and children will be safe using a different safety factor. It is clear that with regard to farm children, there is disproportionate exposure, and uncertainty about the degree of exposure. Thus an additional child-protective safety factor should be used to set tolerances for any pesticides to which farm children could be exposed.

  • Consider non-dietary routes of pesticide exposure for farm children in establishing health-protective food tolerances. Children receive a large daily dose of pesticides from indoor air and dust. In the case of farm children, these exposures are not just limited to pesticides registered for household use. Risks to children from take-home exposures must be considered in setting tolerances for all agricultural pesticides.

  • Phase out Category I acutely toxic pesticides, and phase out use of the most hazardous neurotoxic organophosphate and carbamate pesticides, endocrine disrupters, and carcinogens, while developing and promoting alternative pest management practices.

  • Reevaluate post-application reentry intervals to account for children. If children are to continue to work legally in agriculture, then all reentry standards must be reevaluated to adequately protect children as recommended by the Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee.

  • Reevaluate other provisions in the farm Worker Protection Standard (40 CFR Parts 156170) to require that laundry services be provided for all "normal work attire" so that workers do not have to bring potentially contaminated clothing home, and that shower and locker room facilities be provided.

  • Recognize that migrant farmworker communities are particularly at risk from pesticides and, in accordance with the President's Executive Order on Environmental Justice, take action to promote enforcement of key legal requirements that could help protect this community under the FQPA and EPA pesticide rules, including the Worker Protection Standard.[170]

  • Increase research into exposures and health status of farm children. Biological monitoring of pesticide residues in urine is particularly useful for assessing total exposure. As required by the Executive Order on Environmental Justice, U.S. EPA must "improve research and data collection relating to the health and environment" of farmworkers and must "ensure greater public participation" in study design. More scientific information will allow more informed decision-making.[170]

  • Do not register pesticides for use in the environment unless there is an established laboratory methodology for measuring residues of the pesticide in environmental media and in the human body.

  • Conduct targeted pesticide air monitoring in agricultural communities during major pesticide application periods to detect airborne toxic drift. Communities on agricultural-urban interfaces may be significantly exposed to airborne pesticides. Targeted monitoring will ensure compliance with existing regulations and will identify problem areas requiring mitigation.

  • Children under age 18 should not be handling hazardous substances or operating machinery.[89]

  • Provide affordable, accessible day care for all working families with young children.

  • Inform workers about the identity of chemicals they may be exposed to, and the known or potential health effects of these chemicals. Only with full knowledge can they take action to protect themselves.

  • Provide water, soap, and towels to agricultural employees to allow them to wash off pesticide residues routinely and after emergency exposures.

  • Expand alternative agricultural programs such as integrated pest management (IPM) and increase funding for research on non-pesticide alternatives or organic farming practices. IPM programs have often been opportunities for public relations rather than true efforts at pesticide use reduction. USDA should adopt a formal definition of IPM that includes significant and measurable reduction of pesticide use and avoids use of all organophosphates, category one acute toxicants, carcinogens, and reproductive toxicants, and then take steps to promote this strategy nationwide.

  • Encourage organic farming by instituting stringent national standards. Organic agriculture is an effective way to reduce pesticide exposures among farm families and the general public. USDA should encourage truly sustainable and healthy organic farming practices that provide affordable, high quality food for families.

Other Recommendations

  • Create federal and state pesticide use reporting programs such as the current California program that requires pesticide applicators to report the quantity of pesticide sprayed, the acreage and crop treated, and the identity of the pesticides used. Such reporting systems facilitate research into potential health impacts of pesticides, strengthen pesticide illness tracking, can provide incentives for pesticide use reduction, and are fundamental for worker and community right-to-know efforts.

  • Reduce pesticide use in and around schools and day care centers. Reduction would require informing parents and teachers about pesticide use, requiring that all schools and day care centers have integrated pest management (IPM) programs, and creating buffer zones around schools located in agricultural areas. (See box below.) Furthermore, particularly hazardous pesticides should not be used in such facilities at all.

  • Create funding support for regional laboratories with capabilities for precisely and accurately measuring low-levels of environmental toxicants in environmental media and human tissues. Such laboratories will allow for improved surveillance, improved exposure assessment in research studies, and the ability to respond rapidly to environmental disasters.

  • Farm worker housing should be constructed within the urban growth boundary of rural communities rather than as labor camps surrounded by fields. In the labor camps, spray drift from fields is almost inevitable, and children play in or next to the contaminated fields.

  • Collective bargaining rights are fundamental to farm workers' ability to protect themselves and their families from pesticide poisonings. An organized workforce is a more informed workforce. Living wages are fundamental to decreasing reliance on child labor.

  • Do not retaliate against workers for reporting health and safety issues. Only if workers feel safe in speaking out will surveillance of pesticide-related illnesses be effective.

The Principles of Integrated Pest Management

Integrated Pest Management is rooted in the concept that pests can be controlled naturally through biological mechanisms and that a certain amount of pest damage is acceptable. Early IPM definitions applied ecological principles to agricultural settings, acknowledging the important role predators and parasites play in keeping pest populations in check. IPM was designed to utilize management tactics that prevent pest problems from occurring and to only use chemical control as a last resort.

IPM proponents developed the concept of an "economic threshold," referring to the level of injury a pest can inflict before the loss sustained by a lowered crop yield outweighs the cost of taking corrective action. The practice of scouting fields for levels of pests, their natural predators ("good bugs"), and actual damage -- before treating with chemical products -- was also an early IPM innovation. Over the years, the practice of IPM has strayed from its origins, with scouting and economic thresholds now often being used to decide when and with what to spray rather than developing strategies that enhance the effectiveness of biological control mechanisms that prevent the need to spray. In recent years, researchers and policy analysts have put forth new and improved definitions of IPM, which emphasize its ecological and prevention-oriented principles.

Examples of so-called "bio-intensive" IPM may be found in NRDC's Fields of Change: A New Crop of American Farmers Finds Alternatives to Pesticides, which also includes examples of pesticide-free organic farming.

Practical Steps for Individuals

Farm Owners

  • Provide adequate washing facilities, including showers, and locker room facilities with change areas. Washing up with soap and hot water before going home to the children will greatly diminish take-home exposures.

  • Provide laundry services for work clothes. Employers are required to provide laundry services for personal protective equipment. These programs should be expanded to include all work clothes.

  • Educate workers about the health hazards of pesticides. Educated workers can handle chemicals more safely and protect themselves and their families.

  • Provide child care. Child care facilities will allow families to work without bringing children into the fields.

  • Do not allow children in or near fields during, and for an ample period of time after, pesticide applications. Reentry intervals must be prolonged to protect children.

  • Preserve adequate spraying buffer zones between fields and housing or schools. Pesticide drift is a hazard to local communities and bodies of water.

  • Clean pesticide mixing and application equipment at the end of the application season to prevent inadvertent contact exposure of workers and curious children.

  • Select less toxic pesticides. Avoid using organophosphate pesticides, Category I acute toxicants, probable or possible human carcinogens, and reproductive toxicants.

  • Support pesticide use reporting programs. These are useful to help develop farm-specific pest management plans and to evaluate the effectiveness of different pest management strategies.

  • Use integrated pest management techniques (IPM) and, where possible, switch to non-pesticide alternative methods of pest control. Many farmers have had excellent success with reducing or completely eliminating pesticide use on their farms. Reducing or eliminating pesticide use is the only way to assure that human exposures will decrease.

Farm Workers

  • Do not allow children to play in agricultural drainage ditches.

  • Do not use agricultural chemicals indoors or around the home.

  • Do not re-use chemical containers, or bring empty containers or contaminated equipment home.

  • Do not wear work clothes at home.

  • Remove outdoor playthings when pesticides are being sprayed in nearby fields.

  • Do not wash work clothes with other clothes, particularly children's clothes. Wash work clothes with hot water, and handle them with gloves before washing.

  • If clothes get soaked with pesticides, throw them away. Don't risk washing them or wearing them again.

  • Do not pick up children after work before washing up and changing clothes.

  • Your employer is legally required to teach you about the health effects of pesticides and how to protect yourself -- you should not be asked to handle pesticides without training. You should not have to work in a pesticide-treated field for more than five days without training.

  • Your employer is required to provide protective clothing and equipment to anyone applying pesticides, and to wash and maintain the clothing and equipment

All Parents

  • Avoid using pesticides in the home or yard, or storing pesticides in the home.

  • Learn to recognize the health effects of pesticide exposures.

  • Wash children's hands and toys frequently to remove dust.

  • Avoid wearing outdoor shoes inside the home -- change to house slippers or sandals or use a doormat and keep it clean.

  • Find out if pesticides are used at your child's school or day care center, and in city parks and playgrounds. Campaign for reduction or elimination of pesticide spraying in the environments where your child spends time.

  • Purchase organic food whenever possible. Food grown with pesticides can contain residues that expose your family, and also comes at a cost to farm children.

  • Avoid using carpets, particularly thick carpets, in your home. They are reservoirs for contaminated dust. If you have carpets, vacuum frequently with a power agitator.

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