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Daily News Blog

29
Feb

Oregon Is the Latest State to Step In and Ban Widely Used Neurotoxic Pesticide, Chlorpyrifos, as EPA Stalls

In the face of federal inaction, an Oregon regulation banning the agricultural uses of the highly toxic chlorpyrifos took effect on January 1, 2024.

(Beyond Pesticides, February 29, 2024)  In the face of federal inaction, an Oregon regulation banning the agricultural uses of the highly toxic chlorpyrifos took effect on January 1, 2024. Chlorpyrifos was voluntarily withdrawn from the market in 2000 for most residential uses by its manufacturer, Dow Chemical, and has been the subject of extensive litigation. At that time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allowed most agricultural uses to continue. Oregon joins four other states that have acted to ban chlorpyrifos, including Hawai’i, New York, California, and Maryland 

Central to state action are nervous system and brain effects in children, especially farmworker children. Chlorpyrifos is banned in 39 countries, including the European Union (see here for more Beyond Pesticides coverage). State action has become important since the November 2023 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, which overturned the EPA rule revoking all food tolerances for chlorpyrifos, an effective ban on chlorpyrifos use. The final EPA rule, issued in August 2021, came in response to a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found the agency’s inaction on chlorpyrifos unlawful. The case was filed by Earthjustice, on behalf of public health, labor, and disability organizations. 

The Oregon Department of Agriculture began phasing out chlorpyrifos use three years ago. As of January 1, the state rule bans all uses of chlorpyrifos, except when used for commercial pre-plant seed treatments, applied to Christmas tree crops between April 1 and June 15 in granular form annually to control soil-borne pests, and in cattle ear tags.  

EPA’s inaction on chlorpyrifos spans decades. Following a petition filed in 2007 by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN), the issue of chlorpyrifos’ safety moved through the courts—with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals compelling EPA to reevaluate chlorpyrifos in compliance with the review process in 2021, finding that the agency’s action has been arbitrary and capricious. Prior to this decision, EPA missed numerous deadlines in response to the original 2007 petition. In 2015, the EPA administrator in the Trump administration, Scott Pruitt, rejected the conclusions of EPA scientists and independent scientific literature by reversing a tentative decision to revoke food residue tolerances of chlorpyrifos due to the chemical’s neurotoxic impacts. This would have effectively banned chlorpyrifos from agriculture.  

Poster child for pesticide regulatory failure 

As Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides observed, this disturbing pattern of regulatory failure by the EPA is not isolated. “EPA’s decision making, delay tactics, and contradictory policies are not confined to chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos, glyphosate, 2,4-D, atrazine, and many others are poster children for a failed regulatory system that props up chemical-intensive agriculture despite the availability of alternative organic practices not reliant on these toxic chemicals,” Mr. Feldman said. “We have to end use of petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers and not just chase individual pesticides in an unending battle that allows the pesticide treadmill to continue destroying agriculture and harming farmworkers, farmers, and people generally.” 

As the New York Times noted after the August 2021 9th Circuit ruling, “In an unusual move, the new chlorpyrifos policy will not be put in place via the standard regulatory process, under which the EPA first publishes a draft rule, then takes public comment before publishing a final rule. Rather, in compliance with the court order, which noted that the science linking chlorpyrifos to brain damage is over a decade old, the rule will be published in final form, without a draft or public comment period.” “It is very unusual,” Michal Freedhoff, EPA assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention, said of the court’s directive. “It speaks to the impatience and the frustration that the courts and environmental groups and farmworkers have with the agency.”  

“The court basically said, ‘Enough is enough,'” Ms. Freedhoff said. “Either tell us that it’s safe, and show your work, and if you can’t, then revoke all tolerances.” In a withering attack on EPA, Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the Ninth Circuit wrote on behalf of the court that, rather than ban the pesticide or impose restrictions, the agency “sought to evade, through one delaying tactic after another, its plain statutory duties.”

Dow Chemical’s decision in 2000 to stop residential uses of chlorpyrifos, taken after extensive research highlighted the adverse impact on children, left its agricultural use unfettered for over 20 years due to EPA’s sustained inaction in the face of strong science. As Beyond Pesticides has warned before, EPA sits in the background and watches the marketplace, then codifies voluntary decisions by manufacturers after years, even generations, of poisoning and contamination. As a result, the voluntary actions by the companies are highly compromised and do not include agency determinations or findings—allowing false claims of safety, offering a shield from liability, and permitting unencumbered international marketing. 

Fast forward to 2024 and the reversal of years of science and court findings calling for an end to chlorpyrifos use. What could be characterized as “going back to square one,” the most recent Appeals Court finding in 2023 allows the agricultural uses to return to the market, except in the case of state action, like Oregon, Hawai’i, New York, Maryland, and California. Advocates continue to call for stronger mandates and a national goal to eliminate petrochemical pesticides, given the availability of productive and profitable organic practices. Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (including the Food Quality Protection Act), continuously fail to adequately regulate chlorpyrifos, glyphosate, atrazine, 2,4-D, aldicarb, dicamba, neonicotinoids, synthetic pyrethroid, antimicrobials, and numerous others, including 1,200 active and hundreds of toxic “inert” (non-disclosed) ingredients in over 16,800 pesticide products.

A note about environmental justice 

Disproportionate impacts on low-income African American and Latino families, including farmworker families, continue with exposure documented, especially for farmworkers and their families. The threats from chlorpyrifos exposure are dire. Farmworker families tend to live in communities adjacent to treated fields and within the buffer zones of agricultural fields. Farmworker studies routinely show high exposure injury and disease from pesticide drift in these communities and other forms of contamination. As Beyond Pesticides reported in 2021, “Chlorpyrifos exposure lingers in the agricultural communities where farmworkers and their families reside. “We have found it in the houses, we have found it in carpet, in upholstered furniture, we found it in a teddy bear, and we found it on the walls and surfaces,” said Stuart Calwell, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in a 2021 lawsuit on behalf of some Californian farmworker families. “Then a little child picks up a teddy bear and holds on to it.” Ultimately, according to the attorneys, 100,000 people in California’s farming regions may need to remove items in their homes that were contaminated by chlorpyrifos. 

Each of the four plaintiff families has children with developmental disabilities that they indicate were caused by chlorpyrifos exposure. This real-world occurrence is supported by scientific literature. Studies find that children exposed to high levels of chlorpyrifos experience mental development delays, attention problems, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder problems, and pervasive developmental disorders at three years of age. Concentrations of chlorpyrifos in umbilical cord blood were also found to correspond to a decrease in psychomotor development and a decrease in mental development in 3-year-olds.  Additional research reinforces these findings, with evidence that children with high exposure levels of chlorpyrifos have changes to the brain, including enlargement of the superior temporal, posterior middle temporal, and inferior postcentral gyri bilaterally, and enlarged superior frontal gyrus, gyrus rectus, cuneus, and precuneus along the mesial wall of the right hemisphere. 

This toxic treadmill is not the sustainable way forward. The progress on one chemical like chlorpyrifos at the federal level, now reversed, required nonprofits, public health advocates, scientists, and people of good conscience to devote extraordinary resources in time and money at a period when a systemic overhaul is needed to meet the existential health, biodiversity, and climate crises to which petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers contribute significantly. The good news is that the solutions are within reach to move us forward with organic practices that sustain, nurture, and regenerate life. 

See Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Agriculture webpage and join our campaign for Keeping Organic Strong. 

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

Source: Oregon’s Department of Agriculture began phasing out the use of chlorpyrifos in 2020. Now, the state will ban most of its uses this month — with some exceptions, Abandoning Science—A look back at the failure to regulate the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos 

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