(Beyond Pesticides, March 31, 2017) On Wednesday, Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), rejected the conclusions of EPA scientists, and independent scientific literature, and reversed a tentative decision from 2015 to revoke food residue tolerances of chlorpyrifos due to the chemical’s neurotoxic impacts. This would have effectively banned chlorpyrifos from agriculture. This decision stemmed from a petition and lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) ten years ago, calling for EPA to revoke all chlorpyrifos tolerances and cancel all registrations. A Federal Appeals court mandated that EPA take final action by March 31, 2017. Mr. Pruitt’s decision leaves the door open for continued neurotoxic dangers for humans, especially children, who have been shown to be especially vulnerable to chlorpyrifos.
Chlorpyrifos is part of the organophosphate (OPs) class of pesticides, which were used in World War II as nerve agents. As potent neurotoxicants, organophosphates are extremely harmful to the nervous system, given that they are cholinesterase inhibitors and bind irreversibly to the active site of an enzyme essential for normal nerve impulse transmission. The scientific evidence of neurotoxic dangers associated with chlorpyrifos exposure is extensive and consistent. Epidemiological data also points to subpopulations that are disproportionately affected by chlorpyrifos exposures. Low-income African-American and Latino families, including farmworker families, continue to suffer the most, and this disproportionate impact creates an environmental justice issue that the agency must not continue to ignore. A 2016 study found lower IQ in children born to mothers who, during their pregnancy, were living in close proximity to chemical-intensive agricultural lands where OPs were used. A 2015 study found that a decrease in lung function in children was linked to exposure to organophosphates early in life. Another 2015 study found that prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos is linked to tremors in children. Although organophosphate use was on the decline in the U.S., EPA has allowed the continued registration of many of these products, and Mr. Pruitt’s recent decision sets a precedent for continued allowance.
EPA’s own assessment, which incorporates recommendations from a 2016 Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP), finds that children exposed to high levels of chlorpyrifos have mental development delays, attention problems, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder problems, and pervasive developmental disorders. The SAP agreed with EPA that there is an association between chlorpyrifos prenatal exposure and neurodevelopmental outcomes in children. After the 2016 review, EPA concluded that there is “sufficient evidence” that there are neurodevelopmental effects even at levels below the agency’s level of concern, and that current approaches for evaluating chlorpyrifos’ neurological impact is “not sufficiently health protective.”
According to the EPA press release regarding the decision to reject the NRDC and PANNA petition, Mr. Pruitt cited the “…need to provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos, while still protecting human health and the environment.” Sheryl Kunickis, the director of the Office of Pesticide Management Policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) supported the decision, stating that, “This is a welcome decision grounded in evidence and science.” Ms. Kunickis went on to say that the decision would benefit both farmers and consumers. Unfortunately, EPA’s own science and other independent science outlined above contradicts these statements.
Jay Feldman, Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides, responded to the decision. “EPA’s action exemplifies a politicized decision that puts chemical industry interests ahead of the public’s health.” He continued, “EPA’s decision is a warning to consumers that we live in a buyer beware country, where consumers and those who may use or work around pesticides must be on the lookout to protect themselves and their families, given that lack of protection from EPA.”
Organophosphates like chlorpyrifos are a widely used agricultural pesticides, with millions of pounds applied yearly across the country and are acutely toxic to bees, birds, mammals, aquatic organisms and certain species of algae at low doses. OPs method of entry into the environment can vary from pesticide drift, volatilization, and runoff from soil erosion. Once present in the environment, organisms that come into contact with the pesticides will have difficulty performing basic survival and reproductive functions. A 2014 study by the U.S. Geological Service determined that an estimated six million pounds of chlorpyrifos is sprayed for agricultural use. In early 2016, a study found that honey bees experience a learning and memory deficit after ingesting small doses of the chlorpyrifos, potentially threatening their success and survival. In January 2017, EPA released its final Biological Evaluations of Three Chemicals’ Impacts on Endangered Species, which found that chlorpyrifos likely has detrimental effect on 97 percent of all species listed and protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Ultimately, the widespread adoption of organic management is necessary to protect consumers and the environment in the long-term. Beyond Pesticides has long sought a broad-scale marketplace transition to organic practices that, as a default, prohibits the use of toxic synthetic pesticides by law (unless subject to rigorous health and environmental standards and recommended by the National Organic Standards Board) and requires a systems-based approach that is protective of health and the environment. This approach never allows the use of highly toxic synthetic pesticides, such as the toxic organophosphates, and advances a viable, scalable path forward for growing food. Find out more about why organic is the right path forward for the future of farming by going to Beyond Pesticides’ organic agriculture webpage.
If you are concerned about the decision made by Mr. Pruitt on chlorpyrifos, you can send an email to OPPChlorpyrifosInquiries@epa.gov or call 703-347-0206.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.