By Jennifer Sass, Natural Resources Defense Council
A new scientific article published today in PLOS Medicine from leading environmental health experts reviews the most recent science on the risks of low-level organophosphate pesticide exposure for children. The authors—myself included—found that prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos, even at low levels previously considered safe, can lead to reduced IQ, developmental delays and increased risk of learning disabilities.
The paper comes while the Trump Administration continues to fight a court-ordered ban on chlorpyrifos. In response to a lawsuit from NRDC and other farmworker and environmental health groups, a federal appeals court ruled in August that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must ban the pesticide due to “scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children.” Based on a review by its own scientists, the EPA originally proposed to cancel the use of chlorpyrifos on food crops in 2014 and again in 2016. Unfortunately, EPA political appointees reversed course promptly after President Trump took office.(more info here)
The paper provides an up-to-date review of the science available on risks to children from low-level prenatal exposures to not just chlorpyrifos, but the full class of organophosphate pesticides. The authors are all a part of Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks). Project TENDR is a unique collaboration of leading scientists, health professionals and children’s and environmental advocates that came together in 2015 out of concern over the now substantial scientific evidence linking toxic environmental chemicals to neurodevelopmental disorders.
“We found no evidence of a safe level of organophosphate pesticide exposure for children. Well before birth, organophosphate pesticides are disrupting the brain in its earliest stages, putting them on track for difficulties in learning, memory and attention, effects which may not appear until they reach school-age,” said Bruce Lanphear, one of the paper’s co-authors and a physician-scientist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Government officials around the world need to listen to science, not chemical lobbyists, and protect our children from chlorpyrifos and all organophosphate pesticides.”
An alarming 87% of babies are exposed to chlorpyrifos before they are even born, via their mothers. People nationwide are exposed to it from residues on a wide range of produce, including kid favorites like apples, oranges and berries. Farmworkers and people in agricultural communities are at especially high risk because they also breathe it in when it’s sprayed in close proximity to where they live, work and go to school.
The unique contribution of the article published today is that for the first time ever it provides a thorough scientific review of long-term epidemiology studies of human populations, toxicology studies of laboratory animals, and other data and information relevant to assessing the class of organophosphate pesticides. While these studies have been looked at individually in the past, this is the first time they’ve been reviewed as a whole. The conclusion from this holistic review is that chlorpyrifos and other OP pesticides are extremely toxic to kids’ brains.
Another one of the paper’s strengths is that it includes data across a number of different OP pesticides, and not just chlorpyrifos. We took this approach because OPs all act by the same mechanism, and we wanted to emphasize that we need strategies that target the elimination of the whole class of pesticides. That’s why the authors are calling for a ban on the whole class of OP pesticides, for both agriculture and non-agriculture uses like golf courses, turf, and structural applications.
On top of that, we are also calling for monitoring of drinking water sources nationwide, to ensure that water supplies are safe from contamination from these chemicals. And recommending the establishment of a national program for reporting of pesticide use and illnesses.
Our additional recommendations are for greater education of doctors and nurses on the risks from organophosphate pesticides so that health providers understand how to treat pesticide poisonings and can educate their patients on ways to prevent them. We’re also encouraging agricultural entities to train their workers in the proper handling and application of pesticides, and to increase the use of less toxic alternatives and move toward sustainable pest control measures.
“Exposure of children and pregnant women to these toxic pesticides can have significant and long-lasting effects,” said Jeanne Conry, past president the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and president-elect of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics. “Health care professionals are on the front line of responding to organophosphate pesticide exposure, but the only way to make sure families aren’t exposed in the first place is to ban them completely.”
Today’s paper documents that there are more than 40 organophosphate pesticides that are now considered hazardous to human health by the U.S. EPA or the World Health Organization. Hawaii recently became the first U.S. state to ban chlorpyrifos use. Internationally, the European Union denied the approval of 33 organophosphate pesticides, and several other countries have banned a handful of other organophosphate pesticides.
Several organophosphate pesticides have been linked to cancer (malathion, diazinon, tetrachlorvinphos), and this week a report in the journal of the American Medical Association reported on a link between eating organic food and reduced cancer risks, particularly for postmenopausal breast cancer, NHL, and all lymphomas).
The science is clear: chlorpyrifos is putting the health of children nationwide in danger. The number of experts calling for action continues to grow. And yet the Trump administration—which has close ties to the largest manufacturer of chlorpyrifos (Dow Chemical)—is continuing to fight to keep this potent toxic chemical on our plates and in our fields. That has to stop. People’s health must come before powerful polluters.