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Daily News Blog

19
Aug

Commentary: Are Children, Agricultural Workers, and the Food Supply Safe with EPA’s Chlorpyrifos Decision?

(Beyond Pesticides, August 19, 2021) Does a science-based, public health-oriented, occupational safety focused, children-concerned, ecologically protective society allow the use of toxic pesticides that are unnecessary to achieve land management, quality of life, and food productivity goals? Should victims of poisoning have to plead with regulators to protect them? Should organizations have to fight chemical-by-chemical to achieve basic levels of protection from individual neurotoxic, cancer causing, endocrine disrupting pesticides? Of course not. But, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) announcement that it is stopping food uses of the insecticide chlorpyrifos after being registered 65 years ago provides us with an important opportunity for reflection, not just celebration. The collective effort to remove this one chemical is a tremendous feat in eliminating one exposure to a hazardous material for children. That is the point. The action we’re celebrating required an amazingly resource-intensive effort at a time in history when we are running against the clock in an urgent race to transition our society and global community away from the use of petroleum-based, toxic pesticides—to move to meaningful practices that sustain, nurture, and regenerate life.

In this context, let’s put chlorpyrifos in perspective. EPA was forced into its decision by a court order that was precipitated by an agency decision to reverse course after proposing to stop food uses of chlorpyrifos in 2017. Despite a mountain of scientific data challenging chlorpyrifos’s safety, it was embraced by industrial agriculture, the golf industry, and others, and deemed too valuable to the bottom line of its manufacturer, Corteva (formerly Dow AgroSciences). Pesticide manufacturers are also motivated to steer EPA away from adverse health and environmental effects findings on their products in order to avoid potential litigation by those harmed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco in its ruling in May, 2021, in which it mandated EPA action, said, “The EPA has had nearly 14 years to publish a legally sufficient response to the 2007 Petition [filed by environmental and farmworker groups].” The court continued, “During that time, the EPA’s egregious delay exposed a generation of American children to unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos.”

But before all the recent activity, in 1999, EPA had negotiated a compromise with Dow that stopped most residential uses of chlorpyrifos. Why? For the same reason that EPA finally acted on food. This neurotoxic chemical is harmful to children. That was 22 years ago, and followed a campaign by Beyond Pesticides and others to remove Dursban/chlorpyrifos from the market because of indoor ambient air contamination of homes and buildings and lawn and landscape exposure. It should be noted that Dursban was viewed with promise by regulators as the alternative to the organochlorine insecticide chlordane, which Beyond Pesticides sued to remove from the termite use market—a remaining use after the agricultural, lawn, and garden uses were finally taken off the market in 1983, with decades of review by numerous agencies. Its cancer-causing properties and ecological effects could no longer be defended. The cancellation of termite use followed in 1988 after millions of homes were potentially contaminated, with high risk factors for cancer.

With all this as context for the chemical treadmill, next up after chlorpyrifos may be the insecticide bifenthrin. It too is a neurotoxic, cancer-causing, endocrine disrupting pesticide. And if that is not enough, there are others waiting in the wings. The picture is clear.

Even in a victory, like EPA’s chlorpyrifos decision, the action is typically filled with exceptions that respond to vested interests seeking to ignore or deflect the science. With chlorpyrifos, EPA, since announcing its decision in 1999 to ban “residential” uses of chlorpyrifos, continues to allow the following uses: (i) Residential use of containerized baits; (ii) Indoor areas where children will not be exposed, including only ship holds, railroad boxcars, industrial plants, manufacturing plants, or food processing plants; (iii) Outdoor areas where children will not be exposed, including only: golf courses, road medians, Industrial plant sites; (iv) Non-structural wood treatments including: fenceposts, utility poles, railroad ties, landscape timers, logs, pallets, wooden containers, poles, posts, and processed wood products; (v) Public health uses: Fire ant mounds (drench and granular treatment); (vi) nurseries and greenhouses; and (vii) Mosquito control. These uses are unaffected by EPA’s announcement yesterday.

Corteva’s statement prior to the EPA announcement was predictable, as the company and the chemical industry generally pushes pesticide dependency: “Chlorpyrifos is a critical pest management tool used by growers around the world to manage many pests. . . We will continue to support the growers who need this important product.” Similarly, the pesticide industry’s partner, the Golf Course Superintendents Association, stated, “Chlorpyrifos is a vital tool for controlling damaging pests on golf courses.” These are self-serving statements because the industry’s products create ongoing product dependency by focusing on killing organisms and life in the soil, rather than preventing pest problems with cultural practices and soil supplements that work in concert with nature and create resiliency.

In the absence of a functional federal system that sticks to the science in an effort to protect public health and the environment, states have intervened to fill the void. The pattern with chlorpyrifos is not any different than the history of state intervention on chemicals like DDT, 2,4,5-T, Ethylene Dibromide, and numerous others, where states have acted to curtail specific pesticide use, in some cases years ahead of EPA. Hawaii, New York, Maryland, and Maine all acted to different degrees to restrict chloroyrifos in advance of EPA. 

In response to the Maine chlorpyrifos ban in June, 2021, Rick Deadwyler, a lobbyist with Corteva AgriScience, was quoted as saying that studies “have shown that current uses of chlorpyrifos meet the U.S. regulatory standard of a “reasonable certainty of no harm.” Therein lies the systemic problem. EPA is subject to a standard (spelled out in the law’s legislative history or report language) that utilizes a risk assessment process that determines reasonableness. That standard has enabled the agency to assume the need for the chemical and adopt self-described protections from exposure that do not reflect reality. In so doing, EPA applies margins of safety that are meaningless, or simply ignores mechanisms like synergism, the effect of mixtures, or a lack of information on health outcomes (like endocrine disruption, for which the agency has not established review protocol). To make matters worse, the reasonable certainty of no harm standard only applies to pesticides that have agricultural uses, while those pesticides with only non-agricultural uses are subject to an “unreasonable adverse effects” standard. In this case, EPA does not evaluate the necessity of pesticides in light of the availability of less or nontoxic alternative practices or products. When safer alternatives exist, is it reasonable to allow exposure to a hazardous pesticide with known adverse effects and the large uncertainties that are inherent to risk assessments?

Local governments are intervening to stop toxic pesticide use on their public lands and, in cases where they are not preempted by state law, on private property. The nationwide momentum is leading the nation from the grassroots in proving that toxic pesticides and fertilizers are not necessary in land management.

The history of chlorpyrifos is a shining example of the failure of pesticide law and policy, which has set a course for the nation that is inherently destructive of life. The good news is that we have the tools to course correct at a time when pesticides, like chlorpyrifos, not only have direct adverse health effects but are contributing to the climate crisis, biodiversity collapse, and disproportionate levels of illness in people of color communities.

Let’s collectively congratulate all who worked on exposing the societal failure of pesticide law, policy, and use in fighting agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos. We can and must use this occasion as an example of the abject failure of the current system and advance systemic change that rejects toxic pesticides and moves society to the adoption of organic practices. This will take a concerted effort that rejects the chemical-by-chemical approach to reform, which at the current pace will not meet the urgency of the existential crises that we face as a nation and globe. The solution is within our grasp. We know how to manage agricultural production, land spaces, and buildings without toxic chemicals. Reform legislation in Congress must meet the urgent need to make this a transformational moment. This is our charge.

 

 

 

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