Pesticides in the Air: Kids at Risk
August 24, 2011
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?
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
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. The NAS findings have been repeatedly
confirmed by EPA and other independent research.
The risks to communities from pesticide drift are borne
out in studies and reports: 
- California documented 3,997 reported pesticide drift incidents between 1992
- Recently, Washington found that of 351
farmworkers with illness or injury due to pesticides, the majority were exposed
- 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; 
- 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; 
- 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.
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.
The law defines “aggregate exposure” to include all anticipated dietary exposures
and all other exposures (including drift) for which there is reliable
law required EPA to complete this review and modify pesticide uses by 2006.
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.  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. 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
EPA acknowledging ethoprop drift has caused poisonings of children.
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.
The vast majority of U.S. farmworkers—approximately 83%--are Latino
whose children live and go to school near the fields where their parents work.
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%).
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. 
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.
NAS, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children, (1993).
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.
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
Cal. Dep’t of Pesticide Regulation, California Pesticide Illness Query.
Washington State Pesticide Incident Reporting and Tracking Review Panel, Annual
Pesticide Action Network North America, Air Monitoring in Hastings, Florida:
October 1–December 6, 2007 (Sept. 2008).
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
21 U.S.C. §§ 346a(b)(2)(C)(ii)(I),
21 U.S.C. § 346a(b)(2)(A)(ii); see
also 21 U.S.C. § 346a(b)(2)(C)(vi).
EPA, R.E.D. Facts: Vinclozolin (Oct. 2000).
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).
EPA, Interim Reregistration Eligibility Decision for Ethoprop, at 14
Cal. Air Resources Bd., Final Report for the 1998 Ethoprop Air Monitoring
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).
Department of Labor, The National Agricultural Workers Survey (Oct.
Id.; and Environmental Working
Group, Every Breath You Take: Airborne Pesticides in the San Joaquin Valley
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).
EPA, Pesticide Registration (PR)
Notice 2001-X Draft: Spray and Dust Drift Label Statements for Pesticide