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Florida Farmworker Association Coordinator Discusses Aldicarb Ruling, Pesticide Use

 A farmworker in Indian River County, Florida harvests lemon citrus.
Farmworker Association of Florida
A farmworker in Indian River County, Florida harvests lemon citrus.

A federal appeals court recently dealt a second blow to Florida citrus growers’ efforts to expand the use of a toxic pesticide.

In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency registered aldicarb for use on 100,000 acres of citrus crops across the state. More than a decade prior the agency announced plans to phase out the pesticide's use nationwide by 2015. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control finds too much exposure to aldicarb may cause acute symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness and headache.

The ruling followed the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' decision in April to bar the use of aldicarb on the state’s citrus groves.

Aldicarb hasn’t been sprayed on the state’s citrus in nearly a decade. But citrus growers and industry groups have advocated for its use to ward off insects that spread a plant disease called citrus greening. The disease can wipe out a tree’s entire harvest.

Three groups filed a legal challenge in March to the EPA's registration of aldicarb. The Farmworker Association of Florida, Environmental Working Group and Center for Biological Diversity were successful on Monday when the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the EPA’s decision.

AgLogic, the company that makes aldicarb, issued a statement following the court’s decision, but didn't specify whether it would seek an appeal. The company emphasized its commitment to safety and highlight the fact that aldicarb is authorized for use on peanuts and cotton.

"Our product was singled out," read the statement. "Unfortunately, this means that the threatened citrus industry may not have this critical tool to fight the disease that is devastating their crops.

The court found the EPA's registration of aldicarb for use on citrus groves violated the Endangered Species Act because the agency failed to consider the pesticide's threat to wildlife.

Though the ruling was bad news for AgLogic and citrus growers who want to use aldicarb, it was a victory for environmentalists, farmworkers and others concerned about possible exposure to the toxic pesticide.

University of Florida researchers counted more than 100,000 nursery and crop workers in the state in 2013. According to Visit Florida, nearly 76,000 residents work in the citrus industry and related business.

For the last 14 years, Jeannie Economos, the Farmworker Association of Florida’s pesticide health and safety project coordinator, has led health and safety trainings to show farmworkers how to protect themselves against pesticide exposure. She now also advocates for public policy that seeks to discontinue toxic pesticide use. Economos says she's worked with farmworkers for more than two decades.

WFSU News interviewed Economos about the court’s decision and what's next in public policy governing the use of pesticides. Here’s the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity:

To start, tell us what you’ve learned about the pesticide Aldicarb?

Well, we know it’s one of the bad actors, as they’re called. It’s one of the worst pesticides. It’s very dangerous. It’s very toxic — so much so that it’s been banned in over a hundred countries worldwide. And also there was agreement to terminate or phase out aldicarb more than ten years ago. Then bringing it back for use on citrus in Florida came as quite a shock. But it’s way too dangerous to be used on crops in Florida for farmworkers and for the environment. And we’re deeply, deeply concerned that it was even considered.

Talk about some of the health risks that the pesticide poses to farmworkers. Have these risks been documented?

Well, it’s a neurotoxin. And as such, it has reproductive health effects to effects on the kidneys and liver, including learning disabilities in children. People don’t realize that pesticide exposure doesn’t just cause acute symptoms and illness. One of our big concerns is that a lot of farmworkers might not have any immediate reaction to exposure to aldicarb, which is usually what people measure and track. But long-time exposure to these pesticides, including aldicarb, can cause long-term health problems, which makes it really hard to show cause and effect. And so farmworkers can have health problems, ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road. And there’s no recourse for them because people will say ‘Well, how do you know that that was from aldicarb?’

A federal appeals court recently rejected the EPA’s registration of aldicarb for use on Florida citrus crops. That decision follows an April order from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services halting the use of aldicarb on Florida citrus. The Farmworker Association of Florida was among the plaintiffs bringing the suit. Tell me why your group got involved in challenging the EPA’s decision.

Let me just say: When it gets personal, you have to take action. The Farmworker Association of Florida is a grassroots organization. We have five offices in the state. And we are not an advocacy organization. We’re not a social services organization. We’re in the communities. We’re grass roots. And we see the effects of exposure to pesticides on farmworkers all the time. And as the pesticide project coordinator for the farmworker association, it breaks my heart to have to sit across the table from farmworkers who are experiencing long-term effects from pesticide exposure and have to look them in the eye and apologize to them for our bad policies in this nation that expose them to pesticides and tell them that there’s nothing I can do. It’s heartbreaking. You see how it affects their families. You see how it it affects their children. This is across-the-board with pesticides. Aldicarb is just one more bad actor.

According to the court ruling, the pesticide aldicarb hasn’t been used on Florida citrus for nearly a decade. However, citrus industry groups requested the EPA’s permission to use the pesticide on citrus crops to prevent a plant disease known as citrus greening from destroying acres of harvest. Are you aware of an equally effective alternative to Aldicarb to protect citrus trees from this disease?

The citrus industry complains that ‘Oh they’re not going to be able to survive.’ There are organic citrus growers in the state of Florida. There is Uncle Matt’s Citrus Farms. Ropers does organic citrus. If other companies can do organic citrus, why can’t other citrus growers in the state convert to more sustainable agri-ecological practices where they don’t have to use pesticides?

What's next? Are there any harmful pesticides in Florida that your group would like to see discontinued?

Yes, multiple pesticides, including chlorpyrifos, including aldicarb (luckily, hopefully is off the table completely). But the whole class of organophosphate pesticides. There is a bill in Congress now called the Protect America's Children from Toxic Pesticides Act, which would ban organophosphates.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Trees infected with citrus greening disease produce green, bitter, misshapen fruit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website.
Florida Division of Plant Industry Archive, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services / aphis.usda.gov
Trees infected with citrus greening disease produce green, bitter, misshapen fruit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.
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