Something in the air

By Michelle Chen Apr 17, 2009

It took about a dozen years, but the Environmental Protection Agency is finally implementing plans to evaluate the health risks related to certain chemicals in pesticides. The testing program, part of the Food Quality Protection Act passed in 1996, will focus on endocrine disruptors—chemicals that could alter the hormonal balance of humans and animals and in turn impact physical and neurological development. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), protecting crops with chemicals could inflict deep harm on exposed humans: “Endocrine disruptors are mistaken for hormones by the body and thus may alter the function of hormones… Estrogen-mimics interfere with the reproductive system, causing infertility, malformed sexual organs, and cancer of sensitive organs.” To activists, the only thing more hazardous may be the government’s failure to shield people from these toxins. PAN has criticized the EPA’s heavy reliance on the industry’s own studies, as opposed to research by independent bodies. And they say the EPA has historically ignored the disproportionate impacts of pesticide exposure on high-risk groups, "including children, farmworkers and their families and communities, the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, the chemically sensitive, and those living in poverty. People of color are disproportionately represented in these impoverished areas." A 2003 study on a group of farmworkers in Washington State—nearly all of them Latino and one third of them female—linked exposure to organophosphate pesticides to health symptoms like headaches, skin rashes, and blurred vision. In March, the Farm Worker Pesticide Project released a study documenting the impact of contamination from MITC, a chemical that derives from widely used commercial pesticides. The researchers found “nearly constant exposures” to the chemical, often exceeding the “levels of concern” established by the EPA as a regulatory standard. In addition, nearby residents were also exposed through chemical “drift.” Though the EPA has mandated some safeguards, such as protective equipment for workers, researchers warned that communities will continue to suffer due to weak standards and lax regulatory enforcement on the local level. Yet anti-pesticide groups demand not only for better protections for workers, but a long-range shift in the agricultural sector toward pesticide alternatives. After all, a real movement to rid the global food system of harmful pesticides would involve every link in the food chain, from the hands that harvest the crops to the mouths that consume them. Globally, a more just food policy would be a more just labor policy, which could lead to more sensible immigration and trade policies as well. That’s a lot for the new administration to digest, but the hunger for change won’t stop growing. Image: Pesticide Action Network