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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Pesticides in the Air: Kids at Risk

By Janette Brimmer and Patti Goldman

This essay is in response to: How does our nation's reliance on pesticides affect the health of those who plant and harvest our food?

Despite the cries of “EPA overreaching” so prevalent in the press, EPA regulators are failing children’s health—especially rural kids in communities of color and economically-disadvantaged populations—in some crucial ways. As a result, Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice are representing Physicians for Social Responsibility along with a number of other health, environmental, and farmworker groups on a petition to EPA to address a significant risk to rural children: pesticide spray drift—the drifting of pesticides away from the site of their application.

In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a pivotal study finding pesticides pose heightened risks to children because “[i]nfants and children are growing and developing,” “[t]heir metabolic rates are more rapid than adults,”  and “[t]here are differences in their ability to activate, detoxify, and excrete xenobiotic compounds” compared to adults. Moreover, children are exposed to greater quantities of pesticides because of their play behaviors and because they eat and drink more relative to their body weight than do adults. One of the many routes by which children—especially rural children—are exposed to pesticides is through pesticide drift.[1]  The NAS findings have been repeatedly confirmed by EPA and other independent research.[2] 

The risks to communities from pesticide drift are borne out in studies and reports: [3]

  • California documented 3,997 reported pesticide drift incidents between 1992 and 2007;[4]
  • Recently, Washington found that of 351 farmworkers with illness or injury due to pesticides, the majority were exposed from drift;[5]
  • In 2007, air monitoring near Southwoods Elementary School in Hastings, Florida, detected four pesticides—endosulfan, diazinon, trifluralin, and chlorothalonil (with effects ranging from endocrine disruption to neurotoxicity to carcinogencity), some at levels exceeding EPA levels of concern for inhalation risk; [6]
  • In 2006 and 2007, air monitoring at homes and an elementary school in rural Minnesota detected chlorothalonil, a persistent fungicide, in 123 of the 186 samples analyzed; [7] 
  • In 2006, air monitoring of communities in Washington’s Yakima Valley detected chlorpyrifos—an acutely toxic insecticide associated with developmental harm—in amounts exceeding EPA levels of concern.

EPA is required to protect children from pesticides by assessing their aggregate exposures—including drift—and limiting or cancelling pesticides uses as necessary. Under the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), EPA must “ensure that there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result to infants and children from aggregate exposure” to a pesticide that it is considering for registration.[8] The law defines “aggregate exposure” to include all anticipated dietary exposures and all other exposures (including drift) for which there is reliable information.[9] The law required EPA to complete this review and modify pesticide uses by 2006.

Unfortunately, EPA has not met its obligations and has left rural children vulnerable from pesticide drift. Under the FQPA, EPA ended up cancelling a number of pesticides and/or specific uses for them in order to protect kids. For example, EPA began a phase-out of almost all food uses of vinclozolin, finding the pesticide posed unacceptable risks of sexual deformities in male fetuses. [10] In 2000 and 2001, EPA began a phase-out of almost all home and garden uses of the organophosphates chlorpyrifos and diazinon after determining that residential uses of these neurotoxic pesticides cause too much risk to children.[11] However, EPA has left unprotected those children who are exposed to many of these same chemicals that drift from agricultural sites, because it failed to include consideration of rural kids’ exposures from pesticide drift. 

EPA has created a double standard, protecting urban children from pesticides like chlorpyrifos, but not protecting rural or suburban children that live or go to school near agricultural areas. As recently as 2006, EPA re-authorized use of chlorpyrifos on apples, citrus, cotton, corn, and other crops without any protections to reduce drift exposures, despite considerable evidence chlorpyrifos drifts from farms into nearby communities at levels that may cause harm. Similarly, EPA registered ethoprop in 2006—an organophosphate pesticide classified as a likely carcinogen[12]—despite EPA acknowledging ethoprop drift has caused poisonings of children.[13] 

EPA’s failure to protect rural kids has especially disproportionate impacts on children from low income and/or community of color households. A high proportion of the children impacted by pesticide drift are from farmworker families, which are statistically more likely to be poor—on average, a farmworker family earned an annual income from $15,000 to $17,499 in 2003.[14] The vast majority of U.S. farmworkers—approximately 83%--are Latino[15] whose children live and go to school near the fields where their parents work.[16] For example, in California, over 73% of children attending schools within 1.5 miles of sites where at least 10,000 pounds of pesticides were applied in 1998 were non-white.  Similarly, in 2008, approximately 53% of students in Washington State’s top five agricultural counties were non-white (the statewide average is 31%).[17]    

While EPA has long required pesticide labels to include general warnings to avoid spray drift, EPA admits these general warnings fall short of what is needed to protect children.  Even with general directions, numerous poisoning and drift incidents occur each year. [18] 

EPA must take more aggressive action to eliminate the double-standard it has created. That is why the petition we have filed on behalf of PSR and others asks EPA to immediately review the most toxic pesticides and protect kids from harmful drift. EPA must complete this work much more quickly than its current schedule of over 10 years. Rural kids must not be subjected to 10 more years of pesticide drift. EPA must also impose spray buffers—proven and recognized by EPA to be effective—between applications of pesticides and children’s homes, schools, and play areas. EPA’s legal and moral obligations to do so are clear.  We must protect the most vulnerable of our population from exposures to drifting pesticide poisons.

For information on the Petition to Protect Children From Pesticide Drift, which Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice filed on behalf of PSR and other groups, and related information on pesticides and drift, go to here and here.


Editor's note: if you'd like to take action on pesticide policy, click here.



[1] NAS, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children, (1993).

[2] EPA, Pesticides and Food: Why Children May be Especially Sensitive to Pesticides (Mar. 2008).  See also Centers for Children’s Environmental Health & Disease Prevention Research, Exposures & Health of Farm Worker Children in California; and EPA, Children’s Exposure to Pesticides and Related Health Outcomes.

[3] See generally Tupper, K., Written Testimony of Karl Tupper, Staff Scientist, Pesticide Action Network North America for the Illinois Senate Agriculture and Conservation Committee, at 1-6 (Sept. 2009).

[4] Cal. Dep’t of Pesticide Regulation, California Pesticide Illness Query.

[5] Washington State Pesticide Incident Reporting and Tracking Review Panel, Annual Report.

[6] Pesticide Action Network North America, Air Monitoring in Hastings, Florida: October 1–December 6, 2007 (Sept. 2008).

[7] Pesticide Action Network North America, Pesticides and Air Pollution in Minnesota: The Frequency of Detection of Chlorothalonil, a Fungicide Used on Potatoes, at 11 Sites in 2006-07.

[8] 21 U.S.C. §§ 346a(b)(2)(C)(ii)(I), (II).

[9] 21 U.S.C. § 346a(b)(2)(A)(ii); see also 21 U.S.C. § 346a(b)(2)(C)(vi).

[10] EPA, R.E.D. Facts: Vinclozolin (Oct. 2000).

[11] EPA, Occupational/Residential Handler and Postapplication Residential Risk Assessment for Chlorpyrifos, at 6 (Oct. 1999); Attachment 26; EPA, Diazinon Revised Risk Assessment and Agreement with Registrants, at 2-3 (Jan. 2001).

[12] EPA, Interim Reregistration Eligibility Decision for Ethoprop, at 14 (Sept. 2001).

[13] Cal. Air Resources Bd., Final Report for the 1998 Ethoprop Air Monitoring (Dec. 1998).

[14] National Center for Farmworker Health, Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Demographics (2009).  See also e.g. United States Department of Agriculture, 2007 County-Level Poverty Rates for TX (Dec. 2008) and Alice Larson, Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Enumeration Profiles Study: California (Sept. 2000).

[15] United States Department of Labor, The National Agricultural Workers Survey (Oct. 2006).

[16] Id.; and  Environmental Working Group, Every Breath You Take: Airborne Pesticides in the San Joaquin Valley (Jan. 2001).

[17] School Data Direct, District-by-District Query, available at http://www.schooldatadirect.org/ (select “District” in the brown search box at the top of the screen, enter the district “Name” and “State” in the respective boxes. then click on the hyperlink for the district) (last viewed September 24, 2009).

[18] EPA, Pesticide Registration (PR) Notice 2001-X Draft: Spray and Dust Drift Label Statements for Pesticide Products.

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