By Kathleen Rest, Union of Concerned Scientists
While many of us were buoyed this past weekend by the 50th anniversary of our nation’s moon landing, the Trump administration gave the U.S. chemical industry another reason to celebrate. This time at the expense of children’s health.
The Dow company was the prime beneficiary of this latest gift from the EPA. On Thursday, July 18, the agency announced that it will not ban the use of chlorpyrifos, a dangerous pesticide, on our nation’s food crops (see here, here, here). That’s right, the EPA said it was OK to spray this brain-damaging chemical on the array of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and cereal crops that we and our children consume on a daily basis.
With this decision, the EPA continues to sideline science, put public health at risk, and roll back public safeguards in favor of private interests. (And this right after another case in point: the EPA’s new “no surprises” inspection policy. Don’t get me started on this one.)
The science is clear. Chlorpyrifos is a significant public health threat
Pregnant women and their fetuses, young children, farm workers, and their communities are particularly at risk Numerous studies (see for example, here and here) have linked chlorpyrifos to brain damage and abnormal neurological development in children, including learning disabilities, reduced IQ, and behavioral problems.
Known commercially as Lorsban and Dursban, the EPA banned chlorpyrifos for household use in 2000. In 2007, the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) petitioned the EPA to cancel the product registration for chlorpyrifos and ban all uses. In 2015, the Obama administration announced it would ban its use in agriculture given the scientific evidence and the assessment of the EPA’s own scientists.
Enter the Trump Administration and Scott Pruitt, who in 2017 reversed this decision. In June 2017, EarthJustice filed objections to this reversal on behalf of 12 public interest groups and 7 states. The American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in, noting grave risks to children’s health and calling on the EPA to take the product off the market. In April, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave the EPA 90 days to make a decision.
And last week EPA Administrator Wheeler did just that. The agency denied all objections and refused to ban chlorpyrifos, while also promising an expedited review of the products’ pesticide registration – sometime before the 2022 statutory deadline. Even if the Trump administration’s EPA actually expedites the review and considers the trove of existing scientific evidence, that’s kicking the can years down the road. And our nation’s kids, farm workers, and rural families will bear the burden of this abject federal failure to protect our health.
Dow Chemical (and its pesticide spin-off company Corteva Agriscience) may be popping corks, but some states are having none of it. Hawaii was the first state to ban chlorpyrifos; California has announced that it will do the same; New York recently approved legislation to ban it by December 1, 2021; and New Jersey and Maryland are also considering statewide bans.
In issuing its final order, the EPA had the temerity (OK, gall might be the better word) to say that there’s still a lot of scientific uncertainty. Only in an alternative universe (or one blinded by anti-regulatory zeal) would an agency say that we need more animal studies when epidemiologic studies have clearly demonstrated serious health effects on humans. I note also that in its order, the agency renews its call for access to raw data from epidemiologic studies; you can see our take on that issue here and here.
Vigilance, accountability, and action needed
The EPA’s decisions last week are just its latest assault on independent science and scientific integrity (we’ve documented many of them here and here). The agency continues to step away from its primary public health mission, to the dismay of many current and former agency staffers. The Trump administration has placed numerous executives from regulated industry in agency leadership position. That, in itself, is reason for active vigilance and oversight. The EPA is the people’s EPA, and we should hold it accountable when it prioritizes private interests over public health and environmental protection.
The effort to ban chlorpyrifos might be stalled, but it’s not over. Our children deserve better. Let your elected representatives know that the EPA is taking us backwards. They should hold the agency accountable. And we will be watching to ensure that they do.