Valley Farmworker Families Sue Chemical Giant Dow

Valley Farmworker Families Sue Chemical Giant Dow
Some farm chemicals such as chlorpyrifos are associated with brain damage in children and pregnant women. Photo courtesy  

Dow Chemical Company is the target of lawsuits recently filed on behalf of two Central Valley farmworker families over injuries they allege are caused by the pesticide chlorpyrifos. The extensively used farm chemical has been associated with brain damage in children. It has been sprayed on more than 80 crops, including food crops such as grapes, oranges and almonds.

In December 2017, 50 farmworkers were sickened in Kern County from chlorpyrifos being sprayed the night before on a half mile of orchard. That pesticide has now been banned for use on food crops by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The Trump administration’s EPA stalled any consideration of banning chlorpyrifos. It was banned in California last year, while other states and nations have stopped using it. But it is still used in many states.

Chlorpyrifos is part of a family of pesticides called organophosphates, which were developed by the Nazis as a war weapon but afterward transformed into agricultural chemicals.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the two lawsuits are designed to be a precursor to more inclusive class action litigation. The lawsuits are taking on chlorpyrifos and its maker Dow Chemical, one of the nation’s most powerful corporations. Actually, the target is Corteva Agrosciences, which was formed by the merger of chemical giants Dow and DuPont.

Lead attorney Stuart Calwell represents two families who live and work in Kings County. The Avila family and the Calderon de Cerda family each contend that lifelong brain damage to their children was caused by chlorpyrifos after it was sprayed near their homes, entered their drinking water and was absorbed by the children’s mothers during their pregnancies as they worked in the Valley’s fields and packing houses.  

Miriam Rotkin-Elvin is an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Its lawsuit against the EPA directly resulted in the agency’s decision to ban chlorpyrifos use on food. She says the pesticide is sprayed at high volume and over a wide agricultural landscape. State records show that from 1974 to 2017 some 61 million pounds of the pesticide were used just in Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties.

“It gets into people’s homes in a whole bunch of different ways,” says Rotkin-Elvin. “There’s a lot of science on this, particularly looking at farmworkers and their exposure.

“There’s the drift in the air that gets into people’s homes. It settles on the ground and people track it, in terms of soil on their shoes, into their homes. And then folks who work in the field are carrying it home on their bodies and their shoes.

“A study was done, in Washington state I believe, that measured [chlorpyrifos] all over the trucks that farmworkers used to go back and forth between their home and the field site.”

While chlorpyrifos dissipates rapidly outdoors, the residue does not go away once indoors. Plaintiffs’ attorney Calwell told the Associated Press that after decades of use, traces of the pesticide were found in measurable amounts in houses, in the carpet, in furniture, on walls and surfaces, and even in a teddy bear.

When chlorpyrifos is mixed with chlorinated water as it commonly is, the resulting chemical, called chlorpyrifos oxon, is 1,000 times more toxic. And it doesn’t go away on its own.

Emily Marquez is a staff scientist with the Pesticide Action Network. She explains how the danger of chlorpyrifos was revealed in a cohort study by Columbia University. It was an investigation that followed a group of farmworkers over a long period.

“Some of the effects they found were changes to what you could call the architecture of the brain that bring morphologies not found in children with less or almost no exposure,” Marquez says.

“The Columbia University cohort study was actually used by the EPA in their 2016 human health risk assessment to determine that they should recommend a ban on agricultural uses. Effects have been observed like a decrease in different aspects of memory in the children in that cohort, or less IQ points in the most exposed children.”

The danger to children posed by chlorpyrifos was flagged by the California Department of Food and Agriculture back in the 1980s. But Dow did not bother to explore those findings until 1995. Its use continued virtually unabated.

Chlorpyrifos was finally banned for household use in 2000. Although Corteva stopped producing the pesticide last year, the company continues to claim that it is safe.

Marquez explains an even more unsettling confirmation of the health risk posed by the chemical. “There’s also evidence that chlorpyrifos acts at low doses. That’s why exposure via food was such an important point for the EPA’s 2016 human health risk assessment. They went back to look at, if you’re exposed through your diet, will it have an effect on your brain development as a child? And they found that was true.”

Marquez points out that the European Union is moving to nominate the chemical as a persistent organic pollutant under the Stockholm Convention, which carries with it a global ban. But that could take up to six years.

“I firmly believe that chlorpyrifos should not be used based on the evidence that exists,” says Marquez. “I don’t know if there’s another pesticide that has had this much research, including human data.”

The Central Valley towns of Huron and Avenal are also named in the lawsuit for not adequately protecting their municipal water supply. The plaintiffs allege that drinking water for the towns of Huron and Avenal was contaminated by the spraying of pesticides in the vicinity of the California Aqueduct, which is the water source for those towns.

The California Aqueduct that brings irrigating water for the West area of Fresno County —and others— and drinking water for the towns of Huron and Avenal. Two lawsuits claim this water was contaminated by the spraying of pesticides. Photo by Peter Maiden

The plaintiffs claim that those water systems were not properly maintained to protect against pesticide drift. Several large-scale farming companies surrounding those towns are also blamed for the spraying of chlorpyrifos close to their residences.

Rotkin-Elvin warns that agricultural workers are not alone in facing the health risk from this dangerous pesticide. “Farmworkers and farming communities are the most exposed to chlorpyrifos, but we’re all impacted by the use of this pesticide. It is not only all over our homes in the Valley, it’s also all over fruits and vegetables.

“When you spray, it ends up on fruits and vegetables in the supermarket and in people’s bodies. So, the fight to get rid of [chlorpyrifos] is essential for protecting farmworkers, but it’s actually important for all of us.”

In the future, people like the Avila and Calderon de Cerda families should not have to face danger from this toxic chemical as the EPA has announced its decision to stop all use of chlorpyrifos on food products.

On Aug. 18, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan announced that the “EPA is taking an overdue step to protect public health. Ending the use of chlorpyrifos on food will help to ensure children, farmworkers and all people are protected from the potentially dangerous consequences of this pesticide.

“After the delays and denials of the prior administration, [the] EPA will follow the science and put health and safety first.”  

Although farmers have relied on chlorpyrifos, its use has been declining and alternatives have been found. After considering public comments, the EPA will proceed with registration review for the remaining non-food uses of chlorpyrifos by issuing an interim decision that might consider additional measures to reduce human health and ecological risks.


  • Vic Bedoian

    Vic Bedoian is the Central Valley correspondent for KPFA News and a Community Alliance reporter specializing in natural history and environmental justice issues.

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