In the face of uncertainty, there’s reason to err on the side of caution, especially when the issue involves our health. Even more so when it involves our children’s health and development.
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is justified in joining New York, three other states and the District of Columbia in a lawsuit that demands that Scott Pruitt, the director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, reverse his order from late March that ended an Obama-era rule-making process that was seeking a ban of the pesticide chlorpyrifos.
The stakes are high here. Chlorpyrifos, in use since 1965 and marketed by Dow Chemical Co., is the most heavily used pesticide in U.S. agriculture, with about 6 million pounds of the organophosphate used between 2009 and 2013. The broad-spectrum neurotoxic insecticide is used on about 80 fruit and vegetable crops, including many of Washington state’s most important crops, including apples, grapes and wheat, but also sweet corn, onions and mint, according to a recent Capital Ag Press report.
While widely used, its use is on the decline among some state orchardists, KUOW (94.9 FM) radio reported in April, as growers turn to newer pesticides and biological control of insects.
The doubts and reasons for concern about chlorpyrifos are connected to several studies that link its residue on produce to problems with fetal and infant brain development, including lower IQ, problems with motor development and attention deficit disorders. While children and pregnant woman are at the highest risk of exposure, farmworkers and their families, especially those living near agricultural land, are are at risk when the pesticide drifts in the air during application.
The EPA since 2000 has banned the residential use of the pesticide, although it is still allowed in some ant and roach bait products, and the federal agency has some agricultural restrictions in place, according to a recent comprehensive article by FactCheck.org.
A series of studies by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University, which used umbilical cord blood to provide a baseline for exposure, showed that children with higher levels of chlorpyrifos tested lower for motor development skills and tremors, working memory and cognitive development, and had a higher likelihood for attention deficit hyperactivity.
Another study, independent of the Columbia University studies, showed children ages 2 to 5 were 60 percent more likely to have autism spectrum disorder when mothers in pregnancy lived within less than a mile of where organophosphates were used.
While the Columbia University studies have been criticized for having a small sample size, among other limitations, the FactCheck article finds there is evidence to suggest chlorpyrifos negatively effects the brain development of children.
About 10 years ago, the Pesticide Action Network North America and the National Resources Defense Council petitioned the EPA to ban the use of chlorpyrifos. Following review of studies, the EPA under the Obama administration, agreed to seek a ban in November 2015.
A year later, the EPA on the advice of its Science Advisory Panel, reassessed the process used but still determined that while uncertainties remained about the studies there was “sufficient evidence” that children suffer negative effects to brain development even at low levels of exposure to chlorpyrifos.
The EPA affirmed its decision to seek a ban.
Pruitt, less than three months after he was confirmed as the EPA’s chief, reversed the agency’s work, saying his decision was based on “meaningful data and meaningful science.” The Associated Press, however, reported the EPA has yet to provide or identify the scientific studies that Pruitt consulted in making his decision.
Pruitt has only ended the path toward a ban; the EPA has made no formal determination that chlorpyrifos is safe. Absent that determination, Ferguson claims, the EPA is in violation of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which allows the continued use of a pesticide only if the agency finds it to be safe.
The EPA is continuing a review of chlorpyrifos it says it will complete by 2022.
The studies available may not be conclusive, but they raise red flags that call for more limitations on the use of chlorpyrifos — if not a complete moratorium — until we do know more.