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Trouble on the Farm
Growing Up with Pesticides in Agricultural Communities

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"After the diagnosis of my son's cancer, I came home and wondered if there was anything that I was doing that might be implicated . . . I wanted to be able to face my son at some point, and just in case these chemicals were implicated I wanted to be able to say to him, ‘Son, I did everything I could.' I didn't want, [in] ten years for them to find out, and my son on his death bed and I have to say, ‘Oh well, now they found out that it was that and I was trying to protect the crop and, well I am sorry about that. I just did not know.' So I figured, let's err on the side of safety if we have to err at all. . . ."
-- Paul Buxman, Farmer, Dinuba, CA[14]

There are nearly 400,000 young children in the United States who actually live on farms, and an additional five million agricultural workers living near farms, many of whom have children.[2] These people are extraordinarily diverse, ranging from family farmers to professional pesticide applicators, to migrant farmworkers. Other groups of people who do not farm may also have pesticide exposures similar to those discussed in this report. For example, urban landscapers, pet groomers, and urban pesticide applicators share at least one important characteristic with farm families: they may bring pesticide residues home to their children. Agricultural work is difficult and dangerous. Annual rates of work-related deaths among farm workers are two to four times greater than those for the general workforce.[15] Migrant and seasonal farmworkers have exceptionally difficult working and living conditions and may suffer particularly high pesticide exposures. Migrant farmworkers are likely to be poor, members of minority groups, and often immigrants. They bear the brunt of the risks and are most likely to be overlooked by scientists and regulators.[2]

In addition to long workdays, injuries, and fatalities associated with agricultural work, pesticides pose a particularly serious threat to people living or working in the fields. Agriculture is a workplace unlike many others in our country. Farm families often live practically in the middle of the work environment and help out on the job. As a result, children can come into close contact with dangerous pesticides. Residues from the parents' clothing, dust tracked into the house, contaminated soil, food brought directly from the fields to the table, and contaminated water are significant sources of exposure for farm children. The 58 million children in the United States, most of whom live in urban and suburban areas, are also exposed to pesticides from numerous sources in their daily environment. Farm children, however, are likely to experience higher levels of exposure from more sources. Although farm children are a fairly small minority of the children in the nation, it is important to pay attention to their exposures and their health because of what they can tell us about risks to all children.

Farm children are like canaries in the coal mine. Canaries were placed inside mine shafts where they would breathe the first whiffs of poisonous gas. More susceptible than humans to these gases (in part because of their small body size and rapid respiratory rate), the birds would suffer health effects before the miners, providing an early warning of dangerous conditions. We are putting farm children in a situation where they receive some of the highest pesticide exposures in our country. Children, like canaries, have greater susceptibility to the health effects than do adults. Yet in this case we cannot afford to wait and see if science proves conclusively that illnesses among these children are due to pesticides -- particularly since many of the expected health effects occur years or even decades after the exposures.

Pesticide use in the United States is increasing. A recent report documented that pesticide use in California increased by 31 percent from 1991 to 1995, rising to nearly 212 million pounds annually in that state alone. Furthermore, the use of the most toxic pesticides is increasing even more significantly. For example, in the same time period, the use of pesticides classified as potential human carcinogens increased by 129 percent and the use of neurotoxic pesticides such as the organophosphates increased by 52 percent.[16] California is the only state in the nation that requires commercial pesticide users to report the time, location, and amount of pesticides applied.

Despite the overall trend toward increasing use of toxic chemicals in agriculture, there are signs of a growing understanding among people ranging from scientists to farmers that pesticides may not be the lasting solution that they were initially believed to be. A recent NRDC report, Fields of Change, interviewed nearly two dozen farmers who are moving away from reliance on pesticides while maintaining and in many cases improving the profitability of their operations.[17] These examples are an inspiration and a road map to the future for those who wish to take action to prevent health risks to children and the generations to come.

Under the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA), U.S. EPA must determine that a pesticide tolerance is safe for children by evaluating exposure patterns, information about the susceptibility of infants and children, and information regarding cumulative effects of pesticide residues and other substances that have a common mechanism of toxicity. U.S. EPA must then ensure "that there is reasonable certainty that no harm will result to infants and children from aggregate exposure to the pesticide chemical residues."

The FQPA recognizes that children are not just exposed to pesticides through food. All environmental exposures must be considered together. This evaluation requires that children who have multiple routes of exposures to pesticides in their environment be adequately protected. For example, if a pesticide can be found in drinking water in certain geographic regions, any tolerance decision must protect those children who may be exposed to that pesticide in water. If a pesticide is licensed for use in the home or yard, these exposures must be included. If a pesticide can be tracked home from the fields, these exposures must also be considered in setting tolerances. The essential purposes of this innovative new law should not be lost in its implementation.

This report is a critical element of NRDC's Children's Environmental Health Project. This Project seeks to prevent pollution and to protect the health of the entire population -- and particularly the most susceptible and most highly exposed people. Since 1989, NRDC has been working to identify the environmental hazards to children's health, and to minimize or eliminate the most severe threats. We aim to reshape public health guidelines to make children's health the standard for public policy and to incorporate multiple exposures and interactive effects into basic health policy assumptions. Through demonstrations of conventional risk assessment's failure to protect children, we hope to shift policymakers' opinions and actions toward more precautionary approaches.

Trouble on the Farm reviews the scientific evidence demonstrating that farm children are exposed to pesticides via numerous routes, and in disproportionate quantities. Precautionary action is required to protect farm children. Chapters 1 and 2 of the report focus on the health impacts of pesticides and scientific evidence of children's particular exposures and susceptibility. Chapters 3 and 4 highlight children who work in the fields and so-called "take home" exposures. Chapter 5 demonstrates how farm children are surrounded by pesticides and reviews evidence of exposure through water, food, outdoor air, indoor air, and dust. Chapter 6 illustrates how total exposures to pesticides from all sources can result in pesticide residues in children's urine or blood. The evidence to date indicates that farm children are exposed to numerous hazardous pesticides, from multiple sources, and at levels higher than those routinely encountered by the general population. This science should not be ignored, but rather must be used to inform prudent public policy.

The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996

"In passing this legislation we are ensuring that pesticides will present no danger to our children. H.R. 1627 requires the Environmental Protection Agency -- when establishing safety tolerances that apply to all Americans -- to consider any special impacts a pesticide may have on infants and children and ensure that any aggregate exposure to a pesticide chemical residue presents a reasonable certainty of no harm. This provision cannot be waived for the purposes of considering economic benefits. "
-- Rep. Henry A. Waxman, House of Representatives, July 23, 1996

In August 1996, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed into law, the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996. This law completely changes regulation of exposure to pesticide residues. The law focuses primarily on strategies for setting pesticide tolerances for food. A tolerance is an allowable residue concentration of a particular pesticide on a particular food at the time of sale to the consumer. In the past, tolerances were set by considering levels of pesticides that would be expected to remain on crops following normal agricultural use, consideration of public health risks, and consideration of economic benefits of pesticide use. Tolerances were set without any consideration of cumulative exposures. The FQPA changed the old way of doing business. There are three major innovative aspects of this new law that pertain to health risks to children.

  1. EPA must evaluate all sources of exposure to a pesticide when constructing risk assessments. This includes food, drinking water, indoor and outdoor air exposures, exposures from dust and soil, and any other route of exposure that may be relevant to children, including "take-home" exposures from working parents.

  2. EPA must consider the cumulative health impact of pesticides that are toxic via a similar mechanism. For example, the organophosphates all act via inhibition of the same enzyme, acetylcholinesterase. Thus these pesticides must all be considered together as posing a cumulative risk, rather than individually as separate chemicals.

  3. In the case of "threshold" or non-cancer health effects, U.S. EPA must add an additional tenfold margin of safety to protect children, unless there are reliable data with respect to exposure and toxicity to infants and children.

The calculation of risk is different for health effects that do not appear to have a "safe" threshold of exposure (such as cancer) and those effects that may have a "safe" threshold of exposure below which no long-term health effects would be expected (such as liver toxicity). There is currently significant controversy about whether disruption of hormones and developmental toxicity to fetuses and children have a "safe" threshold of exposure. Many scientists believe that for effects on fetal or infant development, it is the timing rather than the dose of the exposure that is most critical. As a result, the current threshold model that assumes that a "safe" level of exposure exists may not adequately protect fetuses and children from certain toxicants.

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