Consider “organophosphate” (OP) pesticides as an example.  Last week more than 13,000 organizations and individuals sent a joint letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson calling on her to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos and phase out other OP pesticides.   These neurotoxic chemicals have been widely used in agriculture for half a century despite alternatives.  Unfortunately widespread use has led to widespread exposures.

These exposures are particularly well documented and significant for the people who grow our food, and for their children.  Steven Colbert touched on just the tip of the iceberg in his Congressional testimony spotlighting poor conditions endured by farm workers.  Toxic exposures are also in the mix.

But it is not just agricultural families who experience ongoing exposures to OPs.  A recent analysis of data on children in the general U.S. population found that 94 percent had OP metabolites in their urine.  Researchers have documented that levels of OPs in children’s urine go up when they eat foods grown with pesticides; they go down when they eat organic diets.

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These widespread ongoing exposures are cause for deep concern.  To understand why, look at the newly posted chlorpyrifos display on the Critical Windows of Development website of Dr. Theo Colborn’s organization, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX).  You’ll find study after study linking low dose prenatal chlorpyrifos exposures in animals to altered development of the brain and other organs. 

Then look at the human studies finding associations between OPs and precisely the sorts of neurological effects you would expect to see based on the animal data.  There are studies linking OP exposures in children in the general population to Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as well as studies finding associations between mental/attention deficits and OPs in more severely exposed children, such as farm workers’ children.  Learning, development and behavior disorders are highly prevalent in America and increased awareness and diagnosis account for only part of the rising incidence of these disorders.

A lot is at stake.  EPA’s choices on chlorpyrifos and other OPs will determine whether children will continue to be exposed to neurotoxic chemicals that interfere with proper development and functioning of brains and bodies.  The financial costs to society of these impacts are staggering.  And no one can put a price tag on the loss of human potential experienced by each affected individual.  Moreover, chlorpyrifos and other OPs are associated with additional health effects not addressed in this article.

The letter sent to EPA last week seeking prohibitions on OPs also called on Administrator Jackson to “adopt a precautionary approach with respect to all pesticide registrations.” It said that EPA “must learn from the chlorpyrifos experience and prevent adverse health consequences for children and others.” 

Those united in this plea cut across party lines.  People involved in our farm worker organization, for example, include Republicans, Democrats, and individuals unaffiliated with those parties.  Across the political spectrum, people are saying, “We don’t want to be guinea pigs. Stop gambling with our families’ health.” We are urging EPA to do more, not less, to protect health. 

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Our sentiments are directly in line with those of the vast majority of Americans.  A recent poll by the Mellman Group surveying voters in 75 swing Congressional Districts found that 73 percent believe that exposure to toxic chemicals in everyday life presents a serious threat, and 74 percent favor stricter regulations on chemicals produced and used in the US.  More than 80 percent consider it important to tighten controls on chemicals, including 75 percent of Republicans.  A majority of those polled looked favorably on EPA.

People are concerned about corporate influence at EPA and in Congress.  A whopping 87 percent of those surveyed in a Harris Poll in February said that big companies have too much power in Washington, D.C.  When EPA gave a green light to ongoing use of chlorpyrifos and other OPs in 2006, its own scientists sent a letter to the Administrator protesting undue influence from those EPA regulates.  The letter expressed concern that the Agency was not ensuring adequate protection of the nation’s children. 

Now after five more years of OP exposures, we’re watching intently to see whether our children’s wellbeing or chemical company interests will prevail.  EPA needs to stand up for children and for the right of all Americans to be free of exposures that put our health and our abilities at risk.  Congress needs to support the agency in this urgent work.

Carol Dansereau is Executive Director of Farm Worker Pesticide Project, Washington State.