Groups Say Government Failing to Protect More Than a Million Kids

SAN FRANCISCO (June 7, 2005) -- A generation of America's most vulnerable children face increased risk from exposure to hazardous pesticides, according to a lawsuit filed today against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The suit, by a coalition of farm workers, environmental and public health groups, charges the agency with ignoring the special risk to children growing up surrounded by the swirl of chemical poisons on farms.

More than a million children of farm workers live near farms in this country, and more than 300,000 farmers' children under the age of six live on farms. These children are particularly exposed to hazardous pesticides, from their food, the air, soil and water, and even from the clothes of their parents, according to a growing body of scientific evidence. Kids are especially vulnerable to toxic effects of pesticides on their developing brains and bodies. The plaintiffs charge that EPA has failed to consider farm kids' heightened exposure risks when setting allowable pesticide standards for food.

"Children of farm workers breathe pesticides that drift from the fields, and they often live, play, and go to school right next to pesticide-treated orchards," said Erik Nicholson of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, which represents tens of thousands of farm workers whose families can be exposed to pesticides. "It's common sense to protect our kids, but EPA is ignoring them."

"Congress told EPA to set pesticide levels for food that provide a reasonable certainty of no harm to all our children, including kids living on and near farms," said Michael Wall, senior attorney with NRDC, who represents the plaintiffs. "EPA has abdicated its responsibility."

Under the 1996 law, the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), EPA is required to account for specific factors when setting tolerance levels for chemical pesticide residues that consumers and "major identifiable subgroups" of consumers may be exposed to. In October 1998, the plaintiffs petitioned EPA to identify farm children as meriting special consideration. The groups are suing EPA for failing to respond to the petition within a reasonable amount of time.

"We can no longer wait patiently while we hear every day from communities and individuals directly affected by toxic pesticides," said Margaret Reeves, Ph.D., senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America. "It's time to light a fire under EPA to force it to act to protect farm children's health."

Scientists say children are particularly susceptible to pesticide exposure, both because their bodies and brains are still developing and because they eat more fruits and vegetables and drink more water (for their size), and have more hand-to-mouth contact with dust, dirt and floors. They come into contact with pesticides that drift from fields into their homes, play areas and schools. When parents return from fields, their children are exposed to hazards simply from touching their clothing, hair and skin. Farm children often play near recently sprayed fields and sometimes swim in irrigation canals filled with pesticide-contaminated water.

The plaintiffs say EPA is ignoring growing scientific evidence that farm children face increased health risks because of pesticide exposure. The exposure is linked to neurological disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, reduced cognitive functioning and reduced coordination; developmental delays in infants and children; reproductive harms, such as infertility, stillbirths, birth defects and musculoskeletal defects; and cancer, including brain tumors, leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, sarcoma and Wilm's tumor.

"Studies have shown elevated levels of pesticides in the homes and cars of farming families that are absorbed by workers and their children," said Shelley Davis, co-executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, co-counsel for the plaintiffs. "Put together with evidence of increased rates of cancer and birth defects among farm workers and their children, this research raises a red flag," said Davis.

The lawsuit is being filed against EPA and its administrator, Stephen Johnson, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The plaintiffs are Pesticide Action Network North America; United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO; NRDC; Clean Water Action; and Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. Farmworker Justice Fund and NRDC are serving as co-counsel for the plaintiffs. The groups' lawsuit asks the court to rule that EPA's failure to respond to their petition was unlawful and to compel the agency to respond within 90 days.