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Kristin Schafer's picture

Seven years. Scientists tell us that's the window in the first years of life when children are most vulnerable to pesticide harms. That's also exactly how long EPA has — so far — delayed putting rules in place to protect kids from pesticides that drift from agricultural fields.

Bottom line? While regulators think about what to do, an entire generation of rural kids has experienced increased risk of harms that can last a lifetime. Health risks from early life pesticide exposure are very real, and can be serious. Science points to falling IQs, ADHD, learning disabilities, birth defects and, in some cases, cancer. Last week, PAN and our partners took EPA to court for being too darn slow.

A lifetime of harm

The legal action we filed last Wednesday — along with Farmworker Justice, EarthJustice, Physicians for Social Responsibility, United Farmworkers and Piñeros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste — follows on an earlier "unreasonable delay" challenge in 2009.

That first petition took EPA to task for missing its 2006 deadline for action, set by Congress back in 1996. Now, years later, rural kids are still in harm's way and the science linking pesticides with children's health problems is stronger than ever.

For a 7-year-old child, this regulatory delay has lasted a lifetime.

Families in Minnesota, California and Hawaii stepped forward to participate in yesterday's legal challenge, filing powerful "declarations" of harm. Here are excerpts from their stories — on-the-ground experiences that show us just exactly why something needs to be done.

Manuel in Tehama County, CA

Manuel Silveira lives in northern California's Tehama County, in a small rural community — 200 to 300 families surrounded on three sides by strawberry nurseries. Seedlings are started in greenhouses, then planted in fields for a season before being sold to growers, mostly on California’s central coast.

Manuel and his family — children and grandchildren — live on the edge of one of the largest fields of strawberry starts. In 2010, he and a group of neighbors concerned about pesticides in their community organized Healthy Tehama Farms. Almost everyone involved had children under five living at home, and all had experienced pesticide drift from the strawberry fields. In Manuel's words:

"Heavy amounts of pesticides are sprayed and injected into the fields near these homes, school and river — usually in the fall and sometimes in the spring of each year. Fumigant pesticides, especially methyl bromide and chloropicrin, are used in the heaviest amounts, according to pesticide use reports from the Tehama County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.

"We researched the dangers of pesticide fumigants...and we wanted to take action to protect our children. We learned that these fumigants can cause cancer, or developmental problems, or breathing difficulties, while also contaminating groundwater. As a result, we sent a letter to Driscoll’s urging the company to phase out the use of these fumigants, with little result."

Manuel was raised in a farm community, worked on farms growing up and owned a nursery and landscape business himself for 30 years. He says he's "sympathetic" to the challenge of propagating strawberries, but is concerned about these drift-prone pesticides putting the health of his children and grandchildren at risk.

Howard in Waimea, HI

Howard Hurst has been a teacher at Waimea Canyon Middle School for more than 17 years. He has an advanced degree in the physiology of learning disabilities and works with children with special education needs.

The school where he teaches on the island of Kaua’i is next to fields owned by the Syngenta Corporation where their new genetically engineered crops are tested. Some classrooms are less than 100 yards from these fields where pesticides are heavily applied — and they are downwind. Spray season is particularly heavy in the fall and winter when school is in session.

Pesticides often drift into the school, and sometimes, as Howard notes in his declaration, the harms are quite clear:

"In November 2006, after school staff witnessed an application of pesticides by Syngenta on the adjacent fields, over 60 students reported to the health room complaining of severe headache, nausea, disorientation and 'flu-like' symptoms...10 students were taken to Kaua’i Veterans Memorial Hospital.

"On January 1, 2008, 72 students were documented as having inhaled a noxious odor that resulted in dizziness, headache, malaise, red itchy eyes and nausea, with 12 of the students having severe enough symptoms to ultimately be taken to the hospital."

Howard worked with PAN scientists to install a Drift Catcher near the school in 2011, which documented the presence of a harmful herbicide in the air. In 2011 and 2012, the University of Hawaii measured the insecticide chlorpyrifos — known to harm children's developing brains and nervous systems — in the school's air as well.

"Syngenta continues agricultural pesticide application operations on fields within one-quarter mile of Waimea Canyon Middle School and 'spikes' of illness symptoms indicative of pesticide exposure (that is, the symptoms are the same as those described in the incidents above) occur on days when there is active field spraying and the winds are from that direction."

Howard reports that despite the many documented incidents and evacuations, little has changed. While Syngenta voluntarily stopped spraying in the field closest to the school, the company still sprays on the West side of Kaua’i, and there are no new buffer requirements.

"Unless new policies are put in place," Howard said, "my students and I remain victims of pesticide drift."

Bonnie in Melrose, MN

Bonnie Wirtz is a mother and a farmer, and she's concerned about how drifting pesticides are affecting her family's health. She and her husband own a small 3-acre farm that borders alfalfa fields where the insecticide chlorpyrifos is applied.

In the spring of 2012, she had a severe reaction when the pesticide was sprayed from a plane over the neighboring fields and drifted into her home through the air conditioner.

"My physical reaction was severe. I immediately had trouble breathing and my heart began racing almost to the point of cardiac arrest. I was rushed to the local hospital where emergency room staff were concerned but not surprised. A nurse practitioner told me I was not the first to come in with similar reactions to pesticide drift.

"My son, Jayden, had skin rashes that lasted about a week. My biggest concern is that Jayden will continue being exposed and have long-term adverse effects from the spray."

Bonnie's experiences put her in touch with other concerned Minnesota mothers. She reports that many rural parents worry about the diseases and disorders related to pesticide exposure, including ADHD and autism.

"By failing to reach a decision and taking so long," says Bonnie, "EPA has harmed farm families — and my family."

With last week's legal petition, PAN and our partners are bringing policymakers' attention to the need to protect children from pesticide drift, and the very real effects of their delay in communities across the country. We're also building momentum for change at the local and state level - check out our Healthy Kids campaign page for the latest resources, pledge to be a conversation starter about pesticides and children's health, and sign up for action alerts to see how you can join the effort.

A version of this post also appeared on GroundTruth.

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