The EPA has granted a six-year reprieve for fruit growers to continue to use a highly toxic pesticide. But the decision to eventually phase it out is an uneasy compromise. Environmental health advocates say the delay continues to put farm workers and their families at risk. But growers say they haven’t yet found an effective replacement. Bob Allen reports:
The EPA has granted a six-year reprieve for fruit growers to continue to use a
highly toxic pesticide. But the decision to eventually phase it out is an uneasy
compromise. Environmental health advocates say the delay continues to put
farm workers and their families at risk. But growers say they haven’t yet found
an effective replacement. Bob Allen reports:
No one wants Gramma to find a worm when she opens a can of cherries to make
a holiday pie.
According to regulations, inspectors have to make sure cherries coming to market
are worm free. And that puts big pressure on growers when they bring fruit out
of the orchard.
“And you know there’s a zero tolerance for worms. And if they find one worm
they can reject, not just that load, they can reject your whole crop for that
Francis Otto oversees pesticide spraying for one of the largest cherry orchards
along the west side of Michigan.
For decades those who grow cherries and apples have relied mostly on one
chemical to keep their fruit worm-free. Some call it the hammer. It knocks
down every insect in the orchard for several days. Then it degrades quickly
under sunlight and rain. It’s called azinphos methyl or AZM.
A generation ago workers were directly exposed when they mixed the chemical.
But things have improved since then.
Francis Otto fingers a safer pre-measured packet of AZM.
“It’s called a water soluble packet inside of an overwrap so I can pick this bag up
of azinphos and this plastic bag that it’s actually in dissolves in the water. And so
workers are not exposed to the actual materials.”
That kind of protection is not enough to satisfy groups that sued the EPA on
behalf of farm workers and their families.
Shelly Davis is an attorney with Farmworker Justice. She thinks AZM is just too
toxic to use at all and it ought to be phased-out right away.
“It’s so toxic that if you make the slightest error people are going to get hurt.
>From moderate senses of nausea, vomiting, weakness to convulsions or death.”
There’s no record of anyone dying from AZM. And incidents of serious
poisoning are fairly rare.
But Shelly Davis is mainly worried about effects from low-level exposure to
workers over a long time.
Studies show workers bring pesticides home on their shoes and clothing. It’s in
the dust in their houses where children play.
In Oregon, migrant workers exposed to AZM showed slower reaction times on
tests of how quickly their brains respond than those who don’t work in the
“This is a ticking time bomb. Because when children get exposed it gets to the
effect that it can affect their intellectual functioning over time.”
But health researchers are careful to point out there’s no direct link established
between AZM exposure and learning deficits.
As a precaution, they recommend reducing children’s exposure as much as
EPA is cutting in half the amount of AZM that can be sprayed over the next six
years until it’s phased out. And workers will have to wait 14 days to re-enter a
sprayed orchard instead of 48 hours.
Mark Whalon runs the pesticide alternative lab at Michigan State University.
He’s experimenting with less toxic materials. He says they have to be sprayed
more often and much closer to harvest than AZM to be effective.
Whalon also has spent 25 years developing ways for growers to keep insects in
check other than using chemicals.
“And now we’re going to have to start over again with these new reduced
compounds because they have a whole different set of impacts that we’ve got to
learn all over again.”
Whalon says EPA doesn’t have good data on what the long-term health effects
might be from exposure to the alternative pesticides.
But Shelly Davis with Farmworker Justice says she’d prefer the unknown effects
from much less toxic materials than the sure danger of AZM.
Either way, Francis Otto at Cherry Bay Orchards says something’s got to give.
The alternative pesticides he’s tried are way more expensive but not as effective
Yet he’s still expected to deliver apples and cherries to the buying public free of
insect damage for the same price.
For the Environment Report, I’m Bob Allen.