The EPA Will Not Ban a Pesticide That Can Harm Kids’ Brains
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided on July 18 to keep the pesticide chlorpyrifos on the market, despite numerous studies linking it to brain disorders in children. In a move cheered by chemical manufacturers and agribusiness firms, the agency said there wasn’t enough evidence to tie chlorpyrifos to neurological defects, contradicting the scientific consensus and the EPA’s own research, which recommends that the substance be banned.
“By allowing chlorpyrifos to stay in our fruits and vegetables, Trump’s EPA is breaking the law and neglecting the overwhelming scientific evidence that this pesticide harms children’s brains,” said Patti Goldman, a lawyer for Earthjustice, in a statement (referring to laws in states like Hawaii that ban the chemical’s use). Earthjustice is one of several groups that challenged the EPA in court over the use of the chemical.
The chemical’s producers and boosters say farmers rely on pesticides like chlorpyrifos to keep insects off their crops, and they question the damaging evidence.
Chlorpyrifos, patented by Dow Chemical, is a nerve agent that disrupts an enzyme necessary for proper nerve functioning. For ants crawling up a cornstalk, this usually means a quick death. For workers who handle pesticides, as well as for their kids and kids pawing unwashed fruit in the produce aisle, it can mean an increased risk of memory loss, attention disorders, learning disabilities, and related problems. Research has shown that exposure to even small amounts of chlorpyrifos can slow children’s brain development. What’s more, the chemical belongs to a family of highly toxic substances known as organophosphates, which, studies have shown, increase the risk of autism.
The documented dangers are long term as well. Columbia University researchers found that chlorpyrifos contributed to developmental delays that plagued children for years. Seven years after being exposed to the pesticide, children in the study were more likely to experience problems with their working memory. These children were also more likely to experience hand tremors — 11 years after exposure. Studies that examined the effects of chlorpyrifos in farmworker communities found similar trends. In children, exposure was linked to reduced birth weight, lower IQ, attention disorders, and autism spectrum disorder. In adults, it was tied to memory loss, among other conditions.
Research has shown that exposure to even small amounts of chlorpyrifos can slow children’s brain development.
None of this is new. Experimenting with pesticides in the 1930s, Nazi scientists found that organophosphates like chlorpyrifos caused nerve damage. The compounds later showed up as active ingredients in the chemical weapons of the Third Reich. Rachel Carson chronicled their dangers in her 1962 book, Silent Spring, and scientists have understood the specific drawbacks of chlorpyrifos for decades. The EPA banned residential use in 2000. In 2007, environmental and public health groups filed a petition calling on the agency to end commercial use.
The EPA more or less sat on the petition until 2015. That’s when the Obama administration moved to ban the pesticide based on evidence later published in a 2016 EPA report, which concluded that “most individual food crops” contained potentially harmful levels of chlorpyrifos. Some infants risked coming into contact with 140 times the “safe level” of the toxin, the report found. It also concluded that workers who handled the chemical were exposed to unsafe amounts even when wearing protective gear, and that crop dusting spread the chemical across homes, schools, and playgrounds, exposing entire communities to long-term health hazards.
“It was very clear to me that we could not meet the required statutory finding of a ‘reasonable certainty of no harm,’” declared Jim Jones, the EPA official overseeing the study at the time.
Jones stepped down in January 2017, when Donald Trump took office. Trump’s EPA, helmed by Scott Pruitt, announced in March 2017 that it would not ban chlorpyrifos, saying it needed more time to study its health effects. Part of a much larger effort to dismantle environmental protections in the United States in favor of businesses, the decision came shortly after Pruitt met with the CEO of Dow Chemical, Andrew Liveris, who was chairing Trump’s now-defunct American Manufacturing Council. Under Liveris, Dow Chemical shelled out $13.6 million for lobbying in 2016, including efforts to keep chlorpyrifos on the market. Separately, the company donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration events.
Experts weren’t happy about the decision. Trump’s EPA is “ignoring the science that is pretty solid,” Jones told the New York Times after the agency’s 2017 decision, which the former official said would expose workers and children to “unnecessary risk.”
Because chlorpyrifos is ubiquitous, farmers call it the “Coca-Cola of growers.” They use it on corn, wheat, soybeans, strawberries, walnuts, and more than half the apples and broccoli sold in the United States.
The decision drew legal challenges, too, and in April, a federal appeals court ordered the EPA to make a final judgment on chlorpyrifos. The agency responded last week by doubling down on its decision to permit commercial use of the substance. It said the evidence linking chlorpyrifos to adverse health outcomes was “not sufficiently valid, complete or reliable,” a decision it justified by discounting studies using human subjects. Opponents of that decision say it’s just a way for the agency to avoid doing its job.
Should you be worried about chlorpyrifos?
Well, because chlorpyrifos been used on farms throughout the country for more than 50 years, it’s extremely difficult to avoid the pesticide. Farmers still use between 6 million and 10 million pounds every year, even though Hawaii has banned the substance, and California and New York are poised to follow suit. Because chlorpyrifos is ubiquitous, farmers call it the “Coca-Cola of growers,” according to the Intercept’s Sharon Lerner. They use it on corn, wheat, soybeans, strawberries, walnuts, and more than half the apples and broccoli sold in the United States. It also showed up in 15% of all water samples collected by the U.S. Geological Survey between 1991 and 2012, according to Lerner.
The toxin poses the greatest risk to farmworkers and their families. In 2017, the Guardian published a report on the effects of chlorpyrifos on Latinx workers in Tulare County, California, an agricultural region north of Los Angeles. Throughout the state, Latinx kids are nearly twice as likely as their white peers to attend schools within range of heavy crop spraying. And in Tulare County, one of the poorest in the country, farmers don’t skimp on the chlorpyrifos: “In Tulare County, growers applied more than [1 million] pounds of chlorpyrifos in a five-year period, according to state data,” the Guardian reported. “A 2014 state report found that in one year, farmers applied more than 750 pounds of the pesticide within one-quarter of a mile of four different public schools.” These numbers are staggering, given that pregnant women living within a mile of chlorpyrifos spraying are more than three times as likely to deliver an autistic child, according to a 2014 study.
It’s less likely that the pesticide is used on organic produce, because chlorpyrifos is not explicitly permitted for use in organic farming.
Opponents of chlorpyrifos argue that the Trump administration is putting the interests of chemical companies and agribusiness over children’s health — especially the children of farmworkers. For now, the EPA has chosen big business over solid science, and chlorpyrifos spraying continues.