The pesticide chlorpyrifos was banned for household use over a dozen years ago, but it is still widely applied in agriculture. We’ll explore the health risks for children, especially in farmworking communities, in this report.
Li Lovett(reporter): In a research lab in Salinas, California, 13-year-old Brian Jimenez-Gomez is putting pegs into a slotted metal board under the watchful eye of a researcher.
Research technician: Ready, go. [peg board sounds]
LL: Brian has been taking these kinds of tests since he was a baby. His mother joined the study when she was 3 months pregnant.
Research technician: Alright Brian, go ahead and pick the designs you saw from these cards; place them here in the same place as you saw them on the page.
LL: This is part of a long-term study known as CHAMACOS on the health effects of commonly used chemicals. Brian knows very well what happens after pesticides are sprayed in this agricultural town.
Jimenez-Gomez: Sometimes they can be smelled; they’re really strong pesticides, they can be smelled, but sometimes it’s just like after a few hours or maybe a day you start getting sick or something like that.
LL: CHAMACOS stands for Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas. When the study began, researchers wanted to find out about the long-term consequences of pesticides that are toxic to the brain, among them chlorpyrifos. They came here, to Monterey County, which has the highest percentage of schools, and students, getting the highest level of exposure to pesticides in the state.
Brian’s mother, Marina Gomez, has been spreading the word about this research conducted by the University of California at Berkeley.
Gomez: He hablado con muchas familias…
Translation – I have spoken with a lot of families, mostly mothers. I told them, “Go, go and enroll your kids. You guys are going to know, you’re going to learn more than anything how pesticides affect our kids.”
LL: Hundreds of miles inland, Isabel Arrollo heard about CHAMACOS and other studies finding similar outcomes. An organizer at El Quinto Sol de America, she says the data can help fill a gap
regarding the health effects of pesticides in agricultural areas.
Arrollo: we never really talked about children, how it affects the children, until a report came out that we noticed that, oh my god, it’s actually causing more issues than we really thought. You know, it’s linked to autism, it’s linked to ADD, it’s linked to asthma.
LL: Chlorpyrifos, sold by Dow Chemical Company, is related to nerve gas used in World War II. Over 800 bug sprays, pet collars, and lawn products once contained this pesticide. In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – EPA – moved to protect children by banning in-home use, but the pesticide remains widely used in agriculture.
So you won’t find this chemical now in your can of bug spray [spraying sounds] but farmworkers and their children continue to be exposed to chlorpyrifos every day. [tractor sounds]
Tulare County claims the lion’s share of use for chlorpyrifos in California, although usage has declined here, and across the country in the past decade. California, as an agricultural state, used over a million pounds of chlorpyrifos in 2012; that’s about 20% of the nation’s total. In Tulare, the main crops on which chlorpyrifos is applied are almonds, oranges, alfalfa, and cotton.
Arrollo: If you go to your neighborhood and you talk to somebody, Do you know that chlorpyrifos is being used and that it’s a neurotoxin? They’ll tell you “no.” Do you know that pesticides are being used? They’ll say, Yes, when I drive I get drifted on sometimes.
LL: In Tonyville, population 400, Arrollo takes me to an orchard, where a crew is picking olives.
[olive picking sounds & music]
LL: One 18-year-old man says he’s been working in fields since he was a child in Mexico. He works year-round here in Central California picking different crops.
Oranges are the most difficult to learn, he tells Arrollo, but the season lasts the longest.
[farmworker talking with Arrollo]
Orange crops in the state have been threatened by a tiny insect that causing greening disease; chlorpyrifos is one of the pesticides used in treating infected trees.
[olive picking sounds]
At the other end of this country road, Leticia Ceballos decided to plant an organic garden, but the water quality here is affected by the agricultural surroundings.
Ceballos: We keep getting notices from our water company that our water didn’t pass, didn’t reach standards and you can’t drink it. So it is very difficult even for the children.
LL: Chlorpyrifos can travel from where it’s applied through the air and the water. And it lingers; more than three quarters of U.S. households had measurable amounts of chlorpyrifos five years after the ban for in-home use.
So how are regulatory agencies protecting kids from the long-term effects of this pesticide?
Tracey Brieger says they’re not. As co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform, she travels around the state to work with dozens of community groups, including El Quinto Sol.
Brieger: So what we have across the state – where you see this especially with chlorpyrifos – is a very big double standard where we’ve decided to protect children in homes, but we have not decided to protect children in rural communities.
LL: And as Brieger points out, there are no standard protections, or buffer zones regulating how close to schools pesticides can be applied.
* * * * *
LL: In 2011, three long-term studies including CHAMACOS released papers charting exposures of women and their unborn children to pesticides called organophosphates. Chlorpyrifos belongs to this class of chemicals that affect the nervous system. Over a period of years, the researchers looked at brain development in the children, IQ, memory, and attention problems.
Kim Harley, a CHAMACOS researcher and professor at UC Berkeley, describes how they began studying the organophosphate pesticides.
Harley: When we started in 1999 and 2000, we didn’t know what were the effects of ongoing, chronic, low-dose exposure to these pesticides, levels that were too low to really see overt effects, too low to take you to the emergency room, but ongoing exposure especially to the most vulnerable people in society, and that would be the developing fetus and young children who are undergoing rapid brain development.
LL: Chlorpyrifos works well on insects, but what are the effects on humans?
Harley: The way that they work, they kill insects because they target the nervous system of the insects, and they basically shut down, they overexcite the nervous system and shut it down and it kills the insects. These organophosphate pesticides, including chlorpyrifos, act the same way on humans, the same way on all mammals; they target our nervous system
LL: Back in 1999, CHAMACOS began enrolling 600 pregnant women in Salinas, who mostly spoke Spanish. They’d been exposed to chlorpyrifos from bug sprays before the ban, and possibly in the fields where they worked.
Lab coordinator: Let me get them consented, let’s just do our logistical part…Okay.
LL: Marina Gomez, who was pregnant with Brian when she enrolled in CHAMACOS, had already worked in the fields for years. In this part of California, eight or nine different organophosphates are used in agriculture.
Gomez: Cuando ponen las pesticidas…
When they spray the pesticides, they always do it in the morning. If we come in at seven in the morning, they stop us for just an hour, then they spray. Then, after an hour we start work.
LL: CHAMACOS has followed this original cohort of moms and kids for over 14 years, taking lots of lab samples and measurements along the way.
[blood pressure cuff and equipment sounds] Aqui en la braza…
The UC researchers released their findings on organophosphates in 2011.
Harley: What we found was that these associations that we see with children’s brain development are really happening, are really associated with the exposure to the mom’s during pregnancy.
LL: Harley describes the range of brain effects.
Harley: The mothers with higher levels of organophosphate pesticides in their urine during pregnancy had children with more abnormal reflexes at birth, poor mental development at age two, more attention problems by age five, and by age seven when they’re now school age, lower IQ at seven.
LL: The findings are similar to two other studies from Columbia University and Mt. Sinai Medical School looking at the effects of organophosphates on unborn children. Although
teasing out data can be complicated in epidemiological studies, the CHAMACOS results pointed to organophosphates as a primary culprit.
Harley: When we put other chemicals into our models it didn’t change the association that we were seeing…for every ten-fold increase in organophosphate pesticide levels in the mother’s urine during pregnancy, we see a seven-point decrease in IQ.
LL: In 2012, the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Panel on chlorpyrifos looked at these 3 landmark studies. They concluded that these studies strengthen the evidence for chlorpyrifos playing “a likely role in the adverse effects in child neurodevelopment.”
But Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council – NRDC – says despite their own panel’s findings, the EPA has been ignoring this research.
Sass: Now they say they’re not ignoring it. They say they’re addressing it and they’re discussing it in their documents, but it’s not actually showing up in their numbers. At the very least it should be showing up in the uncertainty factors which should be much more protective than they are, because of these data showing kids in particular exposed to much higher levels.
* * * * *
LL: The U.S. EPA takes years to look at the health risks of each pesticide on the market as part of the registration process. In 2011, EPA released a human health risk assessment of chlorpyrifos; the final report is expected in late 2014.
The health risk assessment has a lot of studies on rats, and even discusses human studies sponsored by Dow Chemical in the 1980s and ‘90s. The companies have an incentive to fund this research, including experiments where people have been given pesticide doses without knowing the risks. The ethics are questionable. At Pesticide Action Network, senior scientist Margaret Reeves is critical of the industry’s role.
Reeves: It’s hard to know what goes on behind closed doors at EPA. We know that EPA uses many of the industry-derived studies to make their decisions. That does not seem appropriate if you’re asking the fox to guard the henhouse, that you take the fox’s information to make decisions about the best way to guard the hens.
LL: NRDC’s Sass says chemical companies are too involved in that assessment process.
Sass: So the problem is that when EPA regulates a pesticide, by law, it can request and require data, toxicity data, from the registrant, which is the chemical manufacturer. What they require is the kinds of studies that EPA needs to generate a dose-response calculation which is a particular number, how much chemical or dose causes what kind of response.
LL: After repeated requests for an interview, the EPA responded in writing, saying they intend to provide an opportunity for comment on a revised health risk assessment by the end of 2014.
In 2011, the EPA proposed doing away with what’s called a ten-fold safety factor designed, by law, to protect infants and children. It sets a wider margin of safety when you can’t really figure out just how much – or how little – of a chemical is dangerous. There are plenty of unknowns supporting the higher safety standards, according to Reeves.
Reeves: We see a much, much greater variation, much greater than ten times, between the most sensitive infants and the least sensitive adults. There is a huge variation on the order of 100 times as opposed to ten between the least sensitive and the most sensitive individuals.
LL: Pesticide Action Network and NRDC filed a lawsuit in 2007 and argued for an all-out ban on chlorpyrifos. The U.S. EPA still hasn’t responded to the suit’s key charges. Brieger, who heads Californians for Pesticide Reform, says decisions can languish in the back halls of agencies for years, or even decades.
Brieger: If there’s no mandate to complete anything and particularly if there’s political pressure to not complete it, sometimes you’ll never see decisions actually ever see daylight again.
LL: At the state level, industry can be a powerful influence as well. Reeves, with Pesticide Action Network, describes what happened in 2008, when California’s EPA reviewed chlorpyrifos for inclusion on a list of chemicals that would receive warning labels because they’re reproductive hazards.
Reeves: All of the individuals with whom we had worked on biomonitoring studies, and our wealth of information from the scientific literature, we got maybe ten minutes of discussion. Dow was there in force and overwhelming demanded the time of the hearing, of the panel.
LL: In November 2008, a Cal EPA Committee met to decide the status of chlorpyrifos, with compelling evidence presented by the agency’s own scientists. Dow Chemical scientists presented their arguments, including the claim that CHAMACOS participants, Mexican American women, did not represent the population of California. The committee voted against listing, and six years later, chlorpyrifos is still not part of the state’s list of reproductive hazards.
Reeves: The burden of proof is on the victims to demonstrate harm, and until the victims who do not have the resources – nor should they be obligated to do that – until the victims can demonstrate harm, the industry seems to be effectively off the hook.
* * * * *
LL: Farmworkers’ children are continually at risk of being exposed to what their parents bring back from the fields, which frequently surround their homes and schools.
Dr. Valerie Bengal is well aware of the risks from pesticides. A family physician on the advisory board of CHAMACOS, she says making a diagnosis can be complicated.
Bengal: Unfortunately, some of these exposures are hard to separate from other factors and children’s problems; we even have trouble screening children adequately.
LL: Ohlone Elementary School is located on a quiet country road in Watsonville, California, across from the fields.
[sounds of children playing]
Teachers are at the front lines of dealing with learning disabilities. Principal Brett Knupfer says the #1 issue is poverty, and it’s hard to trace those learning problems to pesticides when so many other challenges are at play.
Knupfer: We had tried to sort them out as impediments to them being able to succeed in school from having a learning disability per se.
LL: And even when families know about the pesticides risks, it’s not exactly easy to make changes.
Marcy Mock has taught moderate to severely disabled kids at Ohlone for 12 years.
Mock: Most of our parents live out in the fields; I mean their homes are in between croplands, so when there is spraying happening, it’s happening in their home along with their work. And so they’re on survival mode, they’re not able to go and buck the system because they’re just surviving.
LL: During lunch, Casimira Salazar, the migrant-ed teacher, says there are other reasons for the silence about pesticides.
Salazar: Because of strawberry company, what’s the name of the company here? … Driscoll’s… Driscoll, they also give us money and give us backpacks, so it’s sometimes a conflict of interest to complain because this is where a lot of their parents work.
LL: For Cynthia Fernandez, a 2nd grade teacher, the concern about pesticides is also personal; her son just finished kindergarten here.
Fernandez: Whatever I’ve been exposed to, he’s going to also be exposed. It’s frightening to know that things are blowing in the air.
LL: In May 2014, California’s Department of Public Health issued a detailed report on the pesticides used near schools in 15 agricultural counties. It’s the first survey of its kind on this scale.
Here in the town of Watsonville, most common are fumigants used in the strawberry business. At Ohlone School, a cheerful bunch of kids gather around a fenced off gray metal box that’s used for monitoring fumigant pesticides.
Ohlone School is one of six sites in California with air monitoring equipment due to a lawsuit settled in 2011, where the U.S. EPA found that Latino schoolkids in the state were overly exposed to pesticides. Brett McFadden, chief financial officer of Pajaro Valley Unified School District, is keen on the monitoring program.
McFadden: Let’s be an active participant in collecting data. Let’s look at the research, let’s talk to folks, let’s talk to our kids, let’s talk to our families that are impacted by all of this and find out what’s going on with them, and through that, we can make, you know, informed decisions long term.
* * * * *
LL: The concern isn’t just for farmworkers’ kids and communities, it’s for everyone, says UC Berkeley’s Kim Harley.
Harley: Chlorpyrifos and other organophosphate pesticides are used on food and basically all of us in the U.S. have trace levels of it in our bodies. But obviously we’re most concerned about the children and the pregnant women there living in agricultural communities that may have higher levels of exposure.
LL: Thirteen years after the U.S. EPA acted to remove chlorpyrifos from the home, there’s no sign of a ban for agricultural use, says the NRDC’s Jennifer Sass.
Sass: The pesticide manufacturers, the registrants, have people here full time whose job it is to go in and tell the EPA what they think EPA should be doing. And so they’re able to track and follow EPA, supply them their information at critical junctures, delay the process, and negotiate with EPA directly.
LL: Californians for Pesticide Reform and dozens of community groups are calling on the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation to keep that ten-fold safety factor, and to ban the use of chlorpyrifos in California.
Meanwhile, at the local level, groups like El Quinto Sol de America are talking to growers and public officials about safer alternatives. Isabel Arrollo:
Arrollo: How can we continue farming for a hundred, ten thousand years, you know, and how can we get rid of these toxins that are bad for us? We need to make sure that eventually we can move away from chlorpyrifos.
LL: For Making Contact, I’m Li Miao Lovett, in Tulare County, California.