Attorneys General Are Fighting EPA's Pesticide Protection Rollbacks

person spraying pesticide

A farmer washes his sprayer after application of herbicide. Photo: USDA NRCS

Pes­ti­cides are meant to be poi­so­nous,” said Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bar­bara Under­wood last month.

In 2015, the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency agreed with this state­ment and moved to pro­tect the pub­lic from pes­ti­cides on three fronts: first, to reduce occu­pa­tion­al expo­sures to all pes­ti­cides; sec­ond, to reduce occu­pa­tion­al expo­sure to the most tox­ic pes­ti­cides on the mar­ket; and third, to ban chlor­py­firos — a dan­ger­ous and ubiq­ui­tous insecticide.

Agri­cul­tur­al pes­ti­cides are respon­si­ble for thou­sands of pre­ventable ill­ness­es each year, includ­ing acute reac­tions and chron­ic ill­ness­es. Acute reac­tions can range from nau­sea to loss of con­scious­ness, and chron­ic ill­ness­es include asth­ma and Parkin­son’s dis­ease. All pes­ti­cides are more dam­ag­ing to chil­dren com­pared to adults as chil­dren are still devel­op­ing and they drink more water, eat more food, and breathe more air by body weight com­pared to adults. The pes­ti­cide chlor­pyri­fos is par­tic­u­lar­ly tox­ic to chil­dren — even low dos­es can increase risks of low­er IQ, atten­tion dis­or­ders, and reduced motor skills. Reduc­ing all pes­ti­cide expo­sures can save mil­lions of dol­lars a year in health­care costs, reduce time off from work and school, and improve qual­i­ty of life. 

Yet, in 2017, EPA reversed course on three rules designed to pro­tect peo­ple — espe­cial­ly chil­dren — from harm­ful expo­sure to these chemicals.

AGs Force Action on Work­ers’ Expo­sure to Pesticides

In Decem­ber 2017, EPA Admin­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt announced that EPA was going to recon­sid­er the Agri­cul­ture Work­er Pro­tec­tion Stan­dard (WPS) and the Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of Pes­ti­cide Appli­ca­tors Rule (CPA). The WPS was final­ized in 2015, and the final CPA fol­lowed in 2017. Both rules aimed to reduce harm­ful pes­ti­cide expo­sure to farm work­ers and their families.

These final rules were jus­ti­fied and nec­es­sary. For work­ers alone, there are up to 2,950 pes­ti­cide inci­dents each year on agri­cul­tur­al estab­lish­ments that could be pre­vent­ed by the WPS revi­sions. Avoid­ed expo­sures not only improve — and some­times save — lives, they save mon­ey in avoid­ed lost school and work days as well as health costs. For exam­ple, by final­iz­ing the 2015 WPS rule, avoid­ed expo­sures were expect­ed to avoid health­care costs exceed­ing $64 mil­lion annually.

person spraying pesticide

A farmer washes his sprayer after application of herbicide. Photo: USDA NRCS

Changes to the WPS require­ments specif­i­cal­ly improved train­ing on reduc­ing pes­ti­cide expo­sure to chil­dren by address­ing residues brought home on work­ers’ cloth­ing and estab­lish­ing a min­i­mum han­dling age for ado­les­cent work­ers. The CPA also addressed chil­dren’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties to pes­ti­cides by set­ting a min­i­mum age of 18 for pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tors, with the excep­tion of imme­di­ate fam­i­ly mem­bers work­ing on a fam­i­ly mem­ber’s farm.

EPA’s announce­ment in Decem­ber 2017 — that it was recon­sid­er­ing var­i­ous aspects of the 2015 WPS’s work­er safe­ty pro­vi­sions — was used as an argu­ment to delay releas­ing employ­ers’ safe­ty train­ing oblig­a­tions under the WPS, even though full com­pli­ance with the WPS was sched­uled for Jan­u­ary 12018.

On May 30, 2018, Attor­neys Gen­er­al Bar­bara Under­wood (NY), Xavier Becer­ra (CA) and Bri­an Frosh (MD) filed a law­suit chal­leng­ing the Admin­is­tra­tion’s deci­sion to delay imple­men­ta­tion of the WPS rule.

In the face of the law­suit, EPA backed down just two weeks lat­er- on June 14 — announc­ing the avail­abil­i­ty of expand­ed pes­ti­cide safe­ty train­ing mate­ri­als, in accor­dance with the 2015 rule.

This isn’t the end of the sto­ry, unfor­tu­nate­ly. On June 16, EPA sent pro­posed revi­sions on both the 2015 WPS and the 2017 CPA to the White House for review.

The revi­sions to the WPS are expect­ed to include changes to the require­ments for min­i­mum pes­ti­cide han­dling ages, des­ig­nat­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives (who obtain infor­ma­tion on recent pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tions of behalf of work­ers), and appli­ca­tion exclu­sion zones (requir­ing appli­ca­tors to avoid spray­ing on or near work­ers) — which may neces­si­tate an update to the train­ing mate­ri­als final­ly released in June, 2018.

EPA is also recon­sid­er­ing” the min­i­mum age require­ments under the CPA. The CPA rule sets train­ing, cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, and age require­ments for Restrict­ed Use Pes­ti­cides (RUPs) — the most tox­ic pes­ti­cides avail­able in the US. Over half-a-mil­lion child farm work­ers in the Unit­ed States are pro­tect­ed from being required to spray dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals by this rule.

Ban­ning Chlorpyrifos

The WPS isn’t the only time Attor­neys Gen­er­al have had to press EPA to pro­tect the pub­lic — includ­ing chil­dren — from pesticides.

In 2015, in response to a peti­tion and the ini­ti­a­tion of lit­i­ga­tion by pub­lic health groups, EPA agreed that the pes­ti­cide chlor­pyri­fos should be dis­al­lowed from use on crops because of con­cern about human health impacts. The pes­ti­cide is used on more than 80 food crops, includ­ing apples and strawberries.


Strawberries in California. Photo: USDA NRCS

The pes­ti­cide inhibits an enzyme that is key to the prop­er devel­op­ment and func­tion­ing of the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem and brain. Sev­er­al stud­ies have shown that chil­dren born to women exposed to chlor­pyri­fos dur­ing preg­nan­cy were sig­nif­i­cant­ly more like­ly to have cog­ni­tive and motor devel­op­ment delays, atten­tion dis­or­ders, and low­er IQ scores. EPA ini­ti­at­ed a rule­mak­ing process to ban the pes­ti­cide based on this sci­en­tif­ic evidence.

In March 2017, how­ev­er, EPA Admin­is­tra­tor Pruitt reversed course and allowed the pes­ti­cide chlor­pyri­fos to con­tin­ue being applied on crops. The Admin­is­tra­tor offered no com­pelling jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the con­tin­ued use of the pes­ti­cide in the face of the sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence that it pos­es sig­nif­i­cant human health risks, par­tic­u­lar­ly to children.

In response, eight state AGs from Cal­i­for­nia, Hawaii, Mary­land, Mass­a­chu­setts, New York, Ver­mont, Wash­ing­ton, and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. are tak­ing action in the courts, forc­ing EPA to face the sci­ence and ban this dan­ger­ous chem­i­cal. Specif­i­cal­ly, these AGs have inter­vened in a suit ask­ing the court to find that EPA can­not con­tin­ue to allow chlor­pyri­fos on food crops unless and until it makes an affir­ma­tive human safe­ty determination.

Pes­ti­cides are an inte­gral part of the U.S. agri­cul­ture sys­tem, pro­vid­ing con­sumers with access to afford­able and nutri­tious food by pro­tect­ing crops from insects, weeds, and dis­ease before they reach the din­ner table. But sci­ence-based poli­cies and over­sight of these poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals is nec­es­sary to reduce the risk of poi­son­ing work­ers, their fam­i­lies, and consumers.