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Daily News Blog

02
Oct

EPA Dismisses Disproportionate Harm to Farmworker Children from Neurotoxic Insecticide Chlorpyrifos, Leaves in Food Supply, Rejects Scientific Method

(Beyond Pesticides, October 2, 2020) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) September 22 announcement asserts that, “despite several years of study, the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects [of the insecticide chlorpyrifos] remains unresolved,” as reported in The New York Times. This conclusion contradicts both ample scientific evidence and the agency’s own findings. Beyond Pesticides has repeatedly advocated for a ban on the use of chlorpyrifos because of the grave risks it poses.

This organophosphate pesticide is used on approximately 60 different crops, including almonds, cotton, citrus fruits, grapes, corn, broccoli, sugar beets, peaches, and nectarines. It is also commonly employed for mosquito-borne disease control, and on some kinds of managed turf, including golf courses. Exposure to the pesticide has been identified repeatedly as problematic. Most residential uses were taken off the market in 2000, after the manufacturer, DowDupont (now Corteva) was faced with EPA action.

Chlorpyrifos is a cholinesterase inhibitor that binds irreversibly to the receptor sites of acetylcholinesterase (AChE), an enzyme that is critical to normal nerve impulse transmission. In so doing, chlorpyrifos inactivates the enzyme, damages the central and peripheral nervous systems, and disrupts neurological activity. The compound is associated with harmful reproductive, renal, hepatic, and endocrine disrupting effects, and most notably, with neurodevelopmental impacts, especially in children. It is a neurological toxicant that damages their brains and leads to compromised cognitive function, attention deficit disorder, developmental delays, lowered IQs, and a host of other developmental and learning anomalies.

Beyond Pesticides has long reported on the multitude of twists and turns in EPA’s actions on chlorpyrifos (see background and a timeline of developments here). The gist of the saga is that the agency has dragged its feet for years on stricter regulation of this pesticide. In 2015 the EPA proposed to revoke food residue tolerances for chlorpyrifos, which would effectively have banned use of the pesticide in agriculture (all residential uses having been proscribed in 2000). The agency took this step after its own studies demonstrated that exposure to the pesticide could harm brain development in children. In proposing the ban, EPA stated: “The agency is unable to conclude that the risk from aggregate exposure from the use of chlorpyrifos meets the safety standard of . . . the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). Accordingly, EPA is proposing to revoke all tolerances for chlorpyrifos.” 

EPA had not yet enacted this ban by 2017, at which point the Presidential election and change in administration had happened, and Trump’s EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed that decision, resulting in a slew of legal challenges. In the Summer of 2019, those lawsuits culminated in a directive from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordering the agency to ban the pesticide within 60 days. Almost immediately, the Trump Department of Justice (DOJ) requested a rehearing before an en banc panel of the court’s 11 judges; the request was — unusually — granted. The en banc panel effectively vacated the earlier ruling.

Cue more legal challenges from environmental and public health groups, and in April of 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court again issued an order for EPA to take action on a ban, this time within 90 days. By then, Mr. Pruitt was out and Andrew Wheeler had become EPA Administrator. Pursuant to the court’s directive, the agency announced in July of that year that it would not ban the compound, thus allowing the continued use of the highly toxic pesticide.

This past July, following more lawsuits to try to force a chlorpyrifos ban, EPA argued before a three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit Court that it understands that chlorpyrifos can have neurodevelopmental impacts, but that the level of exposure that is dangerous is unclear. It also claimed that lack of public access to the raw data for a pivotal study out of Columbia University (see more, below) prevented EPA scientists from assessing its findings on chlorpyrifos independently. It should be noted that the Columbia researchers have made offers to share the information privately with EPA, and the agency has rejected these.

This most-recent announcement — allowing continued use of chlorpyrifos because of what EPA calls “unresolved science” on the neurotoxicity of the chemical — needs to be understood, as The New York Times reports, in the context of the Trump EPA’s industry-friendly agenda and related machinations. In 2018 under Mr. Pruitt, and in process in 2020 under Administrator Wheeler, the agency has promulgated a new rule that limits the scientific research that can be used in decision making on pesticides. EPA claims that this brings greater transparency to what it likes to call “secret science” — research studies that cannot or do not make publicly available their underlying data. The so-called “secret science” rule, though not yet finalized, would guide EPA staff to give less weight or credence to, or to ignore outright, such research. The New York Times writes, “This controversial policy would eliminate many studies that track the effects of exposure to substances on people’s health over long periods of time, because the data often includes [sic] confidential medical records of the subjects.”

EPA’s announcement may be a first test of this new rule, used to rationalize EPA’s rejection of the Columbia study, the outcomes of which spurred EPA’s original move to ban the pesticide. That work, by the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia, was part of a series of prospective cohort studies of urban populations of color that linked chlorpyrifos to early childhood developmental delays, decreased mental and motor development, attentional and hyperactivity problems, and altered brain anatomy and lowered IQs, among other impacts.

In its review of chlorpyrifos, EPA asked, over a period of years, for access to the raw data that underlay the Columbia study. Herein lies the underbelly of this proposed rule: much good research happens only when participants can be assured of privacy protection. Critics of this EPA limitation on “acceptable” science note that it will undoubtedly make it even more difficult for researchers to recruit subjects; many people do not want their data shared publicly, however “depersonalized” it is promised to be. In addition, this change would have significant impact on longitudinal studies. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy commented, “The best studies follow individuals over time, so that you can control all the factors except for the ones you’re measuring. . . . But it means following people’s personal history, their medical history. And nobody would want somebody to expose all of their private information.”

For all of EPA’s touting of transparency, in reality, this policy change responds to the pesticide industry’s desires by making it harder for EPA to use epidemiological studies based on confidential medical records, such as the work out of Columbia. E&E wrote in 2018 about the influence of the pesticide industry on the Trump EPA, noting that the agency’s rationale on the emerging new “secret science” rule echoed closely the arguments that officials from CropLife America, an industry trade group, had been making in their multiple closed-door meetings with then-Administrator Pruitt and current Administrator Wheeler.

In 2016, E&E reported, “CropLife America asked the Obama EPA to scrap its proposed [chlorpyrifos] ban and any other regulations that rely on Columbia’s chlorpyrifos research, which has produced several additional papers published in peer-reviewed journals. ‘Neither EPA nor interested stakeholders . . . have [sic] been granted access to the Columbia Study’s underlying data,’ CropLife said. ‘Thus, EPA could not have adequately evaluated the data to determine its validity, completeness, and reliability.’” DowDuPont, a manufacturer of a chlorpyrifos product branded as “Dursban,” is a CropLife America member.

E&E reported that in 2017, “Asked to elaborate on the ‘transparency reasons’ for EPA needing the [Columbia] data, [Jack] Housenger [former director of EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs] acknowledged it was largely to address industry concerns. ‘If you’re taking action on a chemical company’s compound, they want to be able to say, “Hey, we looked at these data and our scientists say this,” he said. Companies often told Housenger ‘we want to be able to analyze these data and defend our chemical.’”

Erik Olson, a senior director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that the EPA and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) have kept chlorpyrifos on the market for years past when it should have been removed. He said in 2018, “There has been a long history of EPA and other agencies using published, peer-reviewed scientific literature to make decisions. It’s really only been recently that the chemical industry has been pushing very hard to ask — or demand, frankly — that agencies request and reanalyze all of the data from all the studies. [EPA] line scientists have long been fine with — in fact, supported — banning chlorpyrifos. It’s been some of the people in management that have been pretty tight with the chemical industry and took on some of those arguments.”

Chlorpyrifos is a dangerous, proven neurotoxicant that has dire impacts on children, making EPA’s action to allow its continued use a failure of both its protective mission and ethics. Further, it is an environmental justice failure, given that risks of exposure fall disproportionately on low-income African American and Latino families, including farmworker families, who are at the greatest risk of harm. In light of EPA’s failures, states are taking action, and Corteva has announced it will cease production by the end of 2020 because of declining sales. Yet state efforts, which are to the good, are nevertheless uncoordinated, patchwork attempts to do what EPA refuses to do: protect the public from harm.

Beyond Pesticides advocates the adoption of organic agriculture and pest management practices that eliminate the use of toxic materials. See our organic program page and ManageSafe.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/23/climate/epa-pesticide-chlorpyrifos-children.html

 

 

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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