By Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, Natural Resources Defense Council
Thankfully, senators are stepping in where Donald Trump’s EPA has fallen down.
Later today, Senate leaders will stand up for children by introducing a bill to ban a pesticide that is currently found at unsafe levels in our food and water, one that is seriously jeopardizing the health of agricultural communities.
Chlorpyrifos (say “klor-PEER-a-foss”) damages the developing brains of children and has been shown to significantly increase the risk of learning disabilities. Yet the Trump administration refuses to finalize a ban that has been recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own scientists.
The bill going before the Senate today is critically needed, since the EPA’s stalling has meant that millions of pounds of this poisonous chemical continue to be sprayed on food crops that children love—apples, oranges, strawberries, and many others—contaminating our food supply and drifting from fields into our homes and schools. Toxic residues are routinely found on fruits and vegetables; they’ve even been found under the peels of oranges and other citrus fruit and in the flesh of melons under their rinds. Scientific analysis conducted by the EPA has concluded that the amount of this chemical ingested by young children could exceed safety levels by 140 times.
All of this has justifiably alarmed pediatricians and policymakers. Ultimately it has led the American Academy of Pediatrics to call for a ban on chlorpyrifos, and spurred attorneys general in seven states to formally object to the EPA’s refusal to take necessary action toward getting this pesticide out of the fields and off our plates for good.
In fact, scientists, pediatricians, and advocates for children and the environment have been sounding the alarm on chlorpyrifos for decades. In 2000, an overwhelming acknowledgment of the risks that it posed to children resulted in a ban on indoor uses. (It had been a popular choice to kill cockroaches and ants.) But the chemical industry fought back hard and was able to retain the lucrative agricultural market—even though it meant poisoning farmworkers, contaminating the air and water, and leaving toxic residues on our food.
As a result, this chemical is now ubiquitous in the bodies of Americans. Multiple studies have shown that its presence is directly linked to eating conventional, nonorganic produce, the kind that’s typically grown with the aid of pesticides. When children consume only an organic diet, chlorpyrifos levels in their bodies plummet. At the same time, children growing up in agricultural communities—many of them with parents who work in the fields—display much higher levels. Studies have tied this increased exposure to increased risk of IQ point loss and developmental delays.
Tell EPA chief Pruitt to ban the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos
Fast-forward 16 years, through multiple rounds of legal wrangling and three separate reviews of the science by independent scientific advisors. Last November, we finally saw the EPA take chlorpyrifos seriously, with the release of a health assessment finding that the levels of exposure from food, water, and air greatly exceeded the levels shown in scientific studies to increase the risk of learning disabilities. Acting on these findings, the agency concluded that it could not meet the legal standard for allowing this pesticide to be used on food, and it summarily proposed a ban—which was later rejected by Scott Pruitt, the new EPA administrator named by President Trump. Although the EPA under Pruitt has refused to pursue the recommended ban on chlorpyrifos, the agency has put forward no new science or analysis—absolutely none—showing that this pesticide can be used safely.
Here’s why that’s significant. Because we know that they’re so harmful, pesticides aren’t allowed, under federal law, to be used on food crops if the EPA can’t show that they can be used safely. And given the science, it’s clear that chlorpyrifos can’t meet this requirement. This discrepancy is the basis for ongoing legal action by a consortium of organizations—including NRDC, Pesticide Action Network, and several farmworker groups represented by Earthjustice—as well as six states, to hold the EPA accountable.
Legal proceedings on pesticides can drag on for years before any changes are felt in the fields, a fact that provides little comfort to the members of those communities who must live with toxic spraying, day in and day out. One analysis conducted in California, the state that leads the nation in chlorpyrifos use, found that more than 300 schools and 150,000 children—disproportionately Latino—are at risk from toxic drift off nearby fields. These communities can’t afford to wait for the courts. Federal and state bans are urgently needed.
The Senate bill being introduced today finally cuts through the excuses that have been coming from an administration—and an EPA administrator—with a track record of caring more about chemical-company profits than children’s health. This bill would stand up for children’s right to a safe food supply and an environment that allows them to thrive and succeed. By banning chlorpyrifos, Congress will stand with the American people and lead the way to safer food and farms for future generations.