US Pesticide Regulation: Weaknesses, Loopholes, and Flaws Undermine Farmworker Health
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 US uses about 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides each year,
representing more than one-fifth of the annual global use of 5.2 billion
Pesticides are designed to harm or kill insects, plants, and other living
things and are released over our land, water, and food crops, exposing wildlife
and people to them. For these reasons, laws regulating pesticides are much stricter than those for industrial chemicals. Despite the
safeguards, however, weaknesses, loopholes, and flaws undermine the legal
requirements, their implementation, and their enforcement and oversight.
Pesticides must be registered by the
US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before they can be sold. EPA can register
only pesticides that will have no unreasonable adverse effects on the
environment or human health. If, after a
pesticide is registered, EPA determines that it no longer meets this standard,
EPA has the authority to cancel the registration (but rarely does), thereby
removing the pesticide from the market. A company seeking to register a pesticide
(the “registrant”) must produce dozens of scientific studies for EPA to assess various
aspects of the chemical, including toxicity, ecological effects, and
environmental fate. EPA then determines whether the pesticide meets the safety
despite all these data, harm still occurs. The required toxicity studies do not include many important
endpoints such as immune system toxicity, endocrine system disruptions,
learning deficits, or chronic illnesses. Yet, all of these endpoints have been
linked to pesticide exposure.    Harm also occurs because
pesticides are reviewed only every fifteen years, leaving long lag times
between science and regulations.
Recent NRDC research revealed another problem with pesticide
regulation: the majority of pesticide products are granted “conditional
registrations” without all required information. EPA’s own analysis confirmed
NRDC’s findings that 69%, or 11,000, of all 16,000 pesticide registrations are
An NRDC report of this problem is currently in preparation. The failure of
conditional registrations was highlighted this summer when the conditionally
approved herbicide Imprelis® was linked to tree deaths around the country,
prompting the manufacturer, DuPont, to recall the pesticide.
Another problem is
that once a pesticide is registered, later-developed scientific evidence of
harm is often ignored by EPA for decades in favor of industry-sponsored studies
showing no harm. For example, EPA recently removed endosulfan from the market due
to its “unacceptable neurological and reproductive risks to farm workers and
However, the cancellation of its registration came only after decades of public
comments, a legal petition, and a lawsuit by NRDC.
NRDC has pushed EPA
to cancel dozens of pesticides. For example, exposure to chlorpyrifos during
pre-birth and early life stages has been associated with poor birth outcomes
and long-term neurobehavioral deficits. Although residential uses of chlorpyrifos were eliminated 10
years ago, approximately 10 million pounds are still used on farms, putting farm
workers and their families at risk. Last year, NRDC, Pesticide Action Network, and Earthjustice
sued EPA for failing to remove chlorpyrifos from the market. EPA is now reviewing the health effects of chlorpyrifos, but without
committing to incorporate the new science.
EPA often ignores the particular concerns for farm children. Farm children,
especially farm worker’s children, are exposed to pesticides through residues
from their parents’ skin and clothing, soil and dust tracked into their homes,
contaminated soil and other surfaces in areas where they play, food eaten
directly from the fields, drift from agricultural pesticide applications,
contaminated well water, and breast milk from exposed farm worker mothers.
Over a decade ago, NRDC and more than fifty
organizations petitioned EPA to specifically consider farm children impacts in
its registration decisions.
Although EPA denied that petition, it recently changed its mind and proposed to consider farm children in its risk assessments.
would benefit from many improvements. NRDC
recommends that EPA do at least the following:
- Require an
alternatives analysis with all risk assessments that includes consideration of
reduced-risk chemical and non-chemical alternatives to conventional pesticides.
- Always add a safety factor for agricultural uses
to protect pregnant women and farm workers’ children who either accompany their
parents to work or themselves work in the fields.
- Routinely include new science in pesticide risk
assessments where it would support more health protective regulations.
- Require registrants to develop
pesticide-specific biomonitoring and diagnostic tests so that EPA can detect a
pesticide and effectively enforce its regulations or measure the efficacy of
its mitigation measures.
EPA can do more to
protect farm workers and their families from harmful pesticide exposures. Doing
less is inexcusable and unlawful.
Editor's note: if
you'd like to take action on pesticide policy, click here.
 Colborn T. Environ Health Perspect 2006
 Rudant et al. Environ Health Perspect 2007
 Kamel et al. Am J Epidemiol 2007
 Hoppin et al. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2002
EPA Chlorpyrifos: Preliminary human health risk assessment for registration
review. June 30, 3011. EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0850.
 Bradman et al. J Expo Anal Environ Epidemiol 1997. See
also Fenske et al. Env Health Perspect 2002
Natural Resources Defense Council et al., Petition for a Directive that the Agency
Designate Farm Children as a Major Identifiable Subgroup and Population at
Special Risk to Be Protected Under the Food Quality Protection Act (1998)