Claudia Ángulo has been working on the fertile fields of California since she migrated there from Mexico in 1995, at the age of 16. Aside from cultivating fruits and vegetables, part of her job required her to take note of the quality of each harvest; her boss would hand her cauliflower or broccoli freshly plucked from the fields, unwashed, and Ángulo would document their sweetness, tartness, and consistency.
She kept doing the job, even 10 years later when she became pregnant. During the first six months of her pregnancy, she felt nauseous and lethargic and started throwing up—an exaggerated amount, she said—until she lost 54 pounds. She also began noticing a strange scent on the vegetables, which she described as the smell of rotting eggs. Nevertheless, she continued to work, up to the week she gave birth. Ángulo soon realized that something was different about her son, Isaac, who barely slept and would crawl in circles on his own. Once he started school, Isaac was diagnosed with ADHD and other learning disabilities before he was placed in a special education class.
Several years later, a news crew from France tested samples of Isaac’s hair. They found traces of more than 50 insecticides in his body, but one in particular, chlorpyrifos, showed up at alarmingly high levels.
“That’s when I started to worry as a mother,” Ángulo told VICE News. “Although I couldn’t prevent it for me, I had to do something to prevent other kids from being born with this damage.”
Ángulo is just one of dozens of farmworkers in California who are taking part in an umbrella lawsuit against manufacturing companies that have used chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that can be highly toxic to children, in their products. While chlorpyrifos was banned from household use in 2000, it is still allowed on the fields where hundreds of farmworkers are exposed to it each day. A recommendation by the Obama administration to ban chlorpyrifos was overturned twice by Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that claimed more science was needed to prove its ill effects.
But now their lawsuit is getting a new lease of life: Last Thursday, President Biden issued an executive order to protect people from “exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides” and promised to re-examine chlorpyrifos. Environmental advocates say they’re hopeful the move signals a shift from an EPA that was industry-friendly and profit-driven in the Trump era to one that prioritizes science, public health, and regular people.
“Our goal in the Biden years is to root out the corporate dominance and interference in policy and try and get it back to policy that is actually healthy for people and the planet,” Kari Hamerschlag, an advisor on the DNC Council on the Climate Crisis, told VICE News.
The story of chlorpyrifos, like its name, is convoluted. It comes from a family of pesticides called organophosphates, which were developed during World War II for chemical warfare. In the 1960s, Corteva, Inc., an American agricultural company, used organophosphates to make household fertilizers that worked by attacking and paralyzing the nervous systems of insects. Eventually, they came up with chlorpyrifos, which is one of the most common and cheapest pesticides in the United States today; in fact, many Americans have traces of it in their bodies, according to the Nation.
Chlorpyrifos was banned from household use in 2000 and since then, legal fights have focused on banning it from the fields. In 2015, the Obama administration recommended a total ban, citing a 2011 study by Columbia University that found young children exposed to chlorpyrifos developed higher rates of learning disabilities and had lower IQ scores. It turned out the chemical was attacking parts of their brains that regulate emotion and memory, a conclusion that has been supported by many more studies since.
But in 2017, Scott Pruitt, who was leading Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, rejected the Obama administration’s petition to ban the pesticide. The EPA claimed that “further evaluation of the science” was needed even as its website acknowledged that in high quantities, the chemical could lead to “respiratory paralysis and death.” It was later uncovered that Dow Chemical, the largest producer of chlorpyrifos, donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural activities and allegedly asked that administration to “set aside” the results of a government study that found the pesticide was harmful to endangered species, according to the Associated Press. Dow told the AP it had asked for the study to be withdrawn because its “scientific basis was not reliable.”
In 2018, the 9th Circuit of Appeals ordered the EPA to ban chlorpyrifos, a decision the Trump administration appealed. A year later, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed another lawsuit against the Trump administration, and California, Hawaii, and other states moved forward to implement their own bans.
Last year, Dow AgroSciences (now Corteva) announced they would stop selling products that contain the chemical. It did not respond to repeated requests for comment from VICE News asking how the phaseout was going—and continued to support chlorpyrifos in an EPA review.
Chlorpyrifos is currently under review as part of a standard process that re-examines the safety of pesticides every 15 years. Unless Biden’s executive actions overturn the slow-moving process, which has a deadline of October 2022, the pesticide could remain in use in most states for at least another year. An interim review released in the closing days of Trump's presidency still recommends trying to limit the pesticide and doesn’t call for an outright ban. For example, it suggests requiring anyone who might be exposed to chlorpyrifos to wear gas masks.
“The EPA will follow the science and law in accordance with the Biden administration’s executive orders,” an EPA spokesperson told VICE News.
Ángulo and other migrant women like her feel that moves to protect them must come with a holistic shift away from organophosphates. She has dedicated her life outside of the fields to speaking out and spreading awareness so that other farm workers remain vigilant and prevent more chemicals like chlorpyrifos from being approved by the EPA in the future.
Ángulo said one particular memory still haunts her from her early days as a migrant farmworker. She was picking grapes early in the morning when a low-flying plane sprayed a pesticide on the field next to hers. Ángulo and her colleagues ran away as ambulances and fire trucks rushed to the scene. People were panicking, cleaning themselves, and coughing. Paramedics stripped and sprayed them with water to wash out the pesticides, which likely included chlorpyrifos. There were three pregnant women working that day, and, according to Ángulo, all three would go on to have miscarriages.
For Ángulo, who has experienced the many horrors of chlorpyrifos firsthand, Biden’s executive action feels like a weight lifted off her shoulders.
“I’m happy that (Biden) is finally listening to the people,” Ángulo said. “I can finally see the light.”
The interview with Claudia Ángulo was conducted in Spanish and translated into English.