By Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, Natural Resources Defense Council
Public health and farmworker advocates returned to court this week to fight back against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ongoing refusal to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that harms children’s brains, from the U.S. food supply. In the meantime, California’s agricultural communities are continuing to sound the alarm for the health of their children, as promised statewide ban has yet to go into effect.
Although California’s plan for a statewide ban made headlines back in May—leading many to assume the problem was solved—the regulatory process to enact the ban has not even started and, in the meantime, continued use of the pesticide puts children at risk.
While EPA continues to fight a federal ban, California’s leadership is critical to protect state residents, particularly given the volume of the chemical that is used in our fields and orchards. California is the country’s top user of chlorpyrifos, using close to a million pounds per year—aka 20% of the chlorpyrifos used nationwide—mainly on fruits, nuts, and vegetables. It is more important than ever that California make good on its promise to protect communities and get this toxic chemical out of the fields.
An increasingly overwhelming body of science—including from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California’s EPA itself—shows that exposure to low levels of chlorpyrifos in early life can lead to increased risk of learning disabilities, including reductions in IQ, developmental delay, and ADHD. Farm workers and families in agricultural communities, many of whom are Latinx, face disproportionate harm because in addition to the food they eat, the chemical is used so close to where they live, work and go to school—resulting in exposures from air, water and dust in their homes.
California’s agricultural communities have been working with children’s health experts to demand action in Sacramento for decades. As Community Organizer Byanka Santoyo with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, based in Kern County, where 20% of the state’s chlorpyrifos is used, noted in a statement from the Californians for Pesticide Reform coalition:
Chlorpyrifos has been the scourge of San Joaquin Valley communities for far too long, robbing little children of their health and potential before they’re even born.
Each time this chemical is used, more children are needlessly endangered and more families are left to face devastating, lifelong consequences. The cancellation of chlorpyrifos can’t happen soon enough.
In light of overwhelming evidence that exposure to even very small amounts of chlorpyrifos can negatively impact kids’ brain development, we continue to commend California EPA’s decision to ban chlorpyrifos. After a multi-year analysis, last May the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) correctly concluded that the only appropriate control measure is a complete ban on chlorpyrifos.
Unfortunately, the state has not yet acted on its promise, and the chemical continues to be used. California’s agricultural communities have not yet even been provided a process for meaningful public participation or transparency regarding timelines and procedures for engagement. These communities need clear information and opportunities to ensure that their voices are represented in this process.
CalEPA and DPR must not lose sight of the fact that every additional day chlorpyrifos remains on the market puts more children at risk of permanent harm and disability. If the cancellation will not be completed on an expedited timeline, DPR should use its authority to suspend all uses of chlorpyrifos during the cancellation process.
There is no more time for delay, we need chlorpyrifos out of the fields and our food supply. As Byanka Santoyo put it: “Governor Newsom if you’re listening: please hurry, our children are suffering.”