The Farm Worker Pesticide Project: protecting people and the planet

by Carol Dansereau

This article was originally published in January 2011

Farm Worker Pesticide Project

The Farm Worker Pesticide Project (FWPP) is a Washington state non-profit that works with farm workers and their families to reduce and eliminate exposure to pesticides. FWPP is one of the unsung heroes in our community, acting to protect both farm workers and the environment.

Last spring, a group of workers tending orchard trees noticed a cloud of toxic fumes heading their way. Within minutes they were experiencing the pain and terror of acute poisoning: vomiting, abdominal cramps, dizziness, headaches, weak muscles, numbness, burning hot skin, and other symptoms.

This happened in Washington state near Royal City on March 25. Someone on a neighboring orchard had sprayed the insecticide chlorpyrifos and it drifted over to the workers. This kind of acute pesticide poisoning happens often in agricultural areas of our state.

Chlorpyrifos has been approved for agricultural use by the U.S. government since 1965. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned its domestic home use in 2000 to protect children from neurological damage. But EPA continues to allow agricultural uses. Chlorpyrifos still is used on everyday crops such as apples, other tree fruit, almonds, cotton and corn. It’s just one in a family of widely used pesticides known as organophosphates (OP), a class of compounds that includes nerve gases.

The health problems associated with organophosphates are not limited to acute poisonings. A study of farm worker children published this summer linked attention deficits to prenatal OP exposures — adding to the wealth of evidence connecting non-acute OP exposures to neurological injury in children and adults.

Farm worker families aren’t the only ones in harm’s way. Ongoing agricultural OP use results in exposures and risks for virtually all U.S. residents. One 2010 study found OP metabolites in 94 percent of children in the general population. Children with higher concentrations were more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Researchers at the University of Montreal and Harvard found that for each tenfold increase in OP levels, the risk of ADHD increased 55 to 72 percent. Non-organic fruits and vegetables are thought to be the primary source of OP exposures among these children.

The Farm Worker Pesticide Project and 13,000 other organizations and individuals sent EPA a letter in October urging it to ban chlorpyrifos and phase out other organophosphates. The letter asked EPA to support programs that help growers transition to alternatives to chlorpyrifos, and urged it to adopt a precautionary approach with pesticide regulations. “EPA must learn from the chlorpyrifos experience and prevent adverse health consequences for children and others,” it noted1.

Why has EPA allowed chlorpyrifos and other OPs repeatedly for decades, knowing their risks and the availability of alternatives? The answer lies in the power of agribusiness interests that profit from these chemicals.

The last time EPA approved OPs in 2006, six unions representing 9,000 agency scientists and other EPA staff sent a protest letter to the EPA administrator. They objected to the undue influence of agribusiness interest on EPA deliberations and warned that EPA was not adequately ensuring protection of the nation’s children from neurological injury2.

FWPP and allies who sent the October letter to EPA are focused on eliminating chlorpyrifos and other OPs. Dr. William Hirzy, a former EPA chemist who was part of the 2006 protest, asked, “Five years later, with even more sobering studies in hand, will EPA finally act to protect children?”

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has proclaimed that environmental justice and protecting children are top priorities for her administration. Farm workers, learning disability organizations, and others around the United States are striving to ensure those promises are enacted.

What can you do to help? Keep eating organic and support organic growers and groups that give voice to farm workers. Join us to advocate phase-outs and adoption of the precautionary principle for regulating synthetic chemicals. We’re also striving to establish a model organic lunch program at a farm worker school and daycare. We would love to have your help.

Carol Dansereau is executive director of Farm Worker Pesticide Project, based in Seattle and Yakima. She can be reached at 206-729-0498 or

  1. See our news release and fact sheets at Supporters included the Learning Disabilities Association of America, doctors, growers, farm workers and others. Signatory Dr. Theo Colborn and her organization concurrently launched a new website about chlorpyrifos.

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