(Beyond Pesticides, July 7, 2015) In a sleight of hand,Â the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans last week to cancel all remaining agricultural uses of the hazardous insecticide chlorpyrifos by April 2016, and then left the door open for negotiations with the chemicalâs manufacturer, Dow AgroSciences, to adoptÂ risk mitigation measures that would avoid a ban. Environmental groups are reacting to EPAâs announcement with guarded optimism, encouraging the agency to move forward with its planned cancellation of a highly toxic chemical that has remained on the market for far long. In June 2000, EPA announced a negotiated voluntary cancellationÂ with Dow that removed residential uses of chlorpyrifos (Dursban) from the market because of the neurotoxic effects to children, but allowed most agricultural uses to continue.
As early as January of this year, EPA released a revised human health risk assessment for chlorpyrifos, finding that the chemical poses risk to farmworkers, and the drinking water of small watersheds. The assessment was, in part, in response to a petition submitted by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Pesticide Action Network (PAN) in 2007, which called on the agency to ban all uses of the insecticide. Since the the 2000 cancellation, advocates across the country have called on EPA to ban the chemical, citing its potent toxicity. In 2010, over 13,000 organizations and individuals submitted a letter to EPA calling for a ban. In 2012, EPA imposed âno-sprayâ buffer zones around public spaces, including recreational areas, schools and homes to reduce bystander exposure risks. In spite of these restrictions, chlorpyrifos still poses risks to human and environmental health.
At the time of the revised human health risk assessment, EPA had only planned to address risks through mitigation measures that would have, in all likelihood, only included changes to pesticide labels. However, EPA’s calculations changed after a federal judge ordered the agency to immediately decide upon the fate of the chemical. In a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, EPA indicated that contamination of drinking water in certain watersheds and impacts to farmworker health required changes to use patterns that the agency was âless confidentâ registrants would be able to achieve outside of âcomplex regulatory proceedings.â But, despite this determination, EPA still plans to give Dow more time. In the same letter, the agency announced it will conduct an investigation through the end of this year into watersheds that are at high risk of chlorpyrifos contamination. EPA indicates that if Dow or other registrants decide to take ânecessary action,â the agency reserves the right to reverse its intent to cancel remaining uses.
The issue is critically important for the residents of many communities in California, who live, play, go to school, or have family members that work in or near agricultural fields where the chemical is frequently applied. Recent state reports show that agricultural pesticide use is increasing, particularly in regards to highly toxic organophosphates such as chlorpyrifos. Although California recently announced new regulations designating chlorpyrifos as a California Restricted Material, the rule does not fulfill its intended goal of protecting childrenâs exposure to these chemicals in agricultural communities. Although sprayers will need to request a permit to apply chlorpyrifos, simply eliminating the use of this chemical in favor of least toxic and organic practices is a safer option for kids, their families and the wider environment.
With the adverse impacts of chlorpyrifos on health and the environment well known,Â EPAâs proposed target date of next April to initiate rulemaking remains a long time off for those suffering the toxic effects of pesticides during this and future growing seasons. A study published last year by the University of California Davisâ CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risks for Genetics and the Environment) program found that pregnant women who live within a mile of agricultural fields treated with organophosphate insecticides are more likely to have their child develop autism. Women in the second trimester living near fields treated with chlorpyrifos were 3.3 times more likely to have their child diagnosed with autism. And research continues to show that the effects of these highly toxic chemicals are not limited to their ability to kill bugs. A study published earlier this year by the New York University School of Medicine found more evidence of the neurotoxic effects of organophosphates. Although aimed at the effects of these chemicals on the European Union, the analysis, conducted by an international team of experts in their field, shows that 13 million IQ points in Europe are lost each year due to prenatal organophosphate exposure, and 59,300 additional cases of intellectual disability are caused. Such impacts account for $130 billion in health care expenditures each year. With weaker health and safety laws than Europe, similar or worse statistics could reasonably be expected in the U.S.
Beyond the open-ended bureaucratic approach EPA has taken to protecting the health of children, farmworkers and the drinking water of agricultural communities from chlorpyrifos contamination, it should simply not require a lawsuit for the nationâs lead pesticide regulatory agency to take action on unnecessary toxic exposure. By taking a more enlighten policy approach that eschews toxic pesticide use in favor of widely available alternative products and practices, EPA can promote a path to safer farming, a restored environment, and healthier communities. The alternatives assessment approach differs most dramatically from the risk assessment-based policy EPA currently adheres to by rejecting uses and exposures deemed acceptable under risk assessment calculations, but unnecessary because of the availability of safer alternatives. By looking to the growing success of organic agriculture, which, even in at its worst, never allows the use of highly toxic synthetic pesticides, let alone organophosphates such as chlorpyrifos, we can promote a viable, scalable path forward for growing food on this planet that does not unnecessarily contaminate our environment or our childrenâs future.
Â All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.