Why won’t New York’s governor Cuomo ban a nasty pesticide that harms children?

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

Something really curious is happening in New York State. In June, the New York Assembly passed a bill to ban the nasty pesticide chlorpyrifos, which damages the development of children. But that’s not the weird part.

What’s surprising is that Governor Andrew Cuomo has not signed the bill, despite the fact that the NY Attorney General Letitia James joined five other attorneys general in suing the Trump Administration’s federal Environmental Protection Agency because it overturned an Obama Administration ban on the pesticide.

“Chlorpyrifos is extremely dangerous, especially to the health of our children,” said Attorney General Letitia James. “Yet, the Trump Administration continues to ignore both the science and law, by allowing this toxic pesticide to contaminate food at unsafe levels. If the Trump EPA won’t do its job and protect the health and safety of New Yorkers, my office will take them to court and force them to fulfill their responsibilities.”

The other states that joined the suit are Washington, Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts, and California—the latter is the country’s largest agricultural producer (measured by cash receipts) and has decided to remove chlorpyrifos from the market in 2020. 

Studies have also linked chlorpyrifos to autism, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, reduced IQ, loss of working memory, attention deficit disorders, and delayed motor development.

Nationally, home use was banned in 2001 because of its impact on children’s developing brains. In 2018, Hawaii became the first state to enact a complete ban on its use, which includes farms.

Chlorpyrifos is also thought to damage male reproductive organs to the point that it can make men sterile.

Since food safety authorities determined that there was no safe exposure level to chlorpyrifos—that any trace of the pesticide was too dangerous—the European Union is expected to ban entry of food products contaminated with the pesticide next year.

In August, the National Consumers League (NCL) and the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which NCL co-chairs, joined 80+ groups—including many from New York—on a letter, urging Governor Cuomo to sign the chlorpyrifos ban. We were naïve enough to think he would.

With an avalanche of data suggesting it is too dangerous to use and his own attorney general suing over its use, why has Cuomo seemingly decided not to ban the pesticide? We can only guess. In July, the governor signed landmark legislation to protect farmworkers from labor abuses, ensure equitable housing and working conditions, and grant them collective bargaining, overtime pay, unemployment compensation and other benefits.

Farmworkers are some of the most exploited workers in America, and we applaud the governor for doing the right thing, but he seems to be taking the position that—having done something farm owners didn’t like—he shouldn’t sign the chlorpyrifos ban because they won’t like that either. The farmers see the pesticide as an effective tool to help them grow crops.

The problem is that chlorpyrifos doesn’t just harm those who eat farm produce; It harms the very people that produce crops—the farmers and the farmworkers and the children of both.

Should giving farmworker labor rights mean that it’s okay to endanger their fertility and cause their children to suffer developmental delays or autism? And from the farmers’ perspective, shouldn’t their children be protected from those afflictions? The governor shouldn’t be striving to protect some of the people some of the time, but should protect all of the people all of the time.

What has happened to nurturing and protecting children?

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

The Child Labor Coalition is a non-partisan group that is concerned with the health and welfare of children in the U.S. and abroad. We were extremely critical of the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw proposed safety protections for children who work in agriculture—known as “hazardous occupations orders.”

We try to call it as we see it and ignore politics. We love any politician who puts children first. But today, we are stunned by the numerous attacks on children by the Trump administration and left wondering what horror is next? 

Earlier this month, Customs and Border Patrol announced that it would stop education classes, legal aid, and even recreational activities for children at the border detention facilities housing immigrant children. Detained children have already been traumatized by their arduous journey to the U.S., their subsequent detention, and, in many cases, forced family separation. What Grinch would deny them schooling and playtime?

Institutionalization and family separation constitute traumatic experiences that threaten the physical and mental health of children. The New York Times reported on February 27th that the federal government had received more than 4,500 complaints of sexual abuse of children in immigration facilities over four years, including an increase since the Trump administration began separating families. Shouldn’t we focus our energies on reuniting families and easing the psychological damage that has already been done—not penalizing children even further?

The decision to withhold education and recreation was just the latest salvo in what increasingly seems like a war against children by the Trump administration. We recently learned that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had decided to defund children’s health research centers around the U.S. For decades, the centers have brought together researchers and children’s health experts to reduce environmental health risks that children face.

The research centers helped expose the danger of the pesticide chlorpyrifos which damages the development of children’s brains and poses grave health risks to child farmworkers, adult farmworkers, and farmers. EPA had decided to ban the toxic pesticide under the Obama administration, but then reversed the ban under the Trump presidency.

The Trump administration also attempted to reverse an Obama administration ban on children applying pesticides as part of their job on farms. Does our agricultural economy need children to apply pesticides? No. Fortunately, after several months of pursuing the idea, the Trump administration seems to have given up—only to move on to the latest perverse idea.

Recently, the EPA and the Office of Management and Budget officials announced plans to change regulations concerning “agricultural exclusion zones” (AEZs). Under current rules, if a plane or aerator sprays pesticides on a field it must be at least 100 feet from workers in the fields; other applicators must be at least 25 feet from workers. Although not spelled out, everyone is assuming the changes will weaken or eliminate the AEZs–because the Trump administration never acts to increase protections for vulnerable populations.

Some of those field workers who are exposed to spray drift are children toiling with their migrant parents; we also know that the developing bodies of minors are more vulnerable to toxic pesticides than adults. Weakening agricultural exclusion zones will mean more child and adult farmworkers are poisoned by pesticides.

Globally, we’ve made significant progress in the fight against child labor. In the last two decades, the number of children trapped in child labor has fallen to 152 million—a reduction of about 100 million children from two decades ago. This is real progress and the U.S. Department of Labor’s International Labor Affairs Bureau has played a role in that reduction—by gathering incredibly detailed reports on the nature of the problem, advising nation’s on how to reduce child labor and by operating child labor reduction programs around the world.  At $50 to $55 million a year, we think these child labor programs are a great buy.

Unfortunately, the administration has tried to zero out these vital child labor programs since Trump took office.

Bad ideas about child work continue to percolate within the Trump administration, which wants to allow American teens who work in nursing homes to be allowed to operate mechanized patient lifts without assistance and supervision from adults, which current rules require. Safety experts know that this change would lead to severe injuries to patients and teen workers. As is generally the case, the administration presents no compelling rationale for the change.

We are left wondering what new outrage awaits. Does the health and safety of children mean anything to this administration?