We knew when Scott Pruitt was elevated to head the Environmental Protection Agency that he was hostile to the agency and the regulations it promulgated to protect the health and safety of Americans from corporate greed. One of the most egregious and utterly irresponsible actions came on March 30 when Pruitt unilaterally decided to disregard the EPA’s proposed ban of chlorpyrifos on food crops.
His rationale is there are still questions about how unsafe this chemical really is and so he stayed the ban to allow more study. This reversal flies in the face of more than 20 years of EPA’s own study and collaboration with scientists all over the country.
Chlorpyrifos belongs to the organophosphate class of chemicals that were used by Nazi Germany in WWII. It is a known neurotoxin so it comes as no surprise that chlorpyrifos damages brains The pesticide works by blocking an enzyme which controls the way messages travel between nerve cells. When that enzyme is blocked, the nervous system can’t send normal signals and so normal functions are lost. That is how it ultimately kills the pests it’s used to control. Research shows it does the same in humans. Adverse effects in humans depend on age at the time of exposure, length of time exposed and concentration of the chemical to which exposed.
Human fetuses, infants and children are very susceptible to harm. More than 20 years of study have established that children exposed in the womb are more likely to grow up to have lower IQ scores and poor mental development than those not exposed in utero. Those children also appear to have lower birth weight even when born at full term; to be born prematurely and to have higher rates of ADHD, psychomotor delays and autism spectrum disorder.
Adults exposed to high levels of chlorpyrifos (farm workers who use the chemical and those who harvest crops treated with it) may also show harm. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, memory loss and paralysis. As far as we can determine to date, the harm to adults is usually temporary and slowly resolves when exposure is stopped/lowered so the enzyme needed to metabolize chlorpyrifos can be replenished.
Because of the rapidity of growth in infants and children and because of so many other variables in child development, assessing the long-term harm to children is difficult. There are a few studies that strongly suggest that in utero exposure does have long-term negative effects.
It is not widely appreciated that chemicals enter the marketplace without any studies about harm to humans. It is also important to remember that it may take 50-60 years after science shows potential for harm before policy begins to catch up … think cigarettes and lung cancer.
The gold standard in science is the double-blind study. However, given that it is against the law to conduct human research using substances known to be harmful, there are always going to be “questions.” Some highly respected scientists have voiced concerns about some study designs and results. Although the vast majority have shown associations between exposure and adverse effects, the results fall short of proving a link between cause (exposure) and effect (harm). However, the preponderance of evidence supports harm with exposure. Medical students are taught that if they hear hoof-beats, think horses, not zebras. Most of us believe that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, the chances of its being a duck are about 100 percent.
These are human beings. There are safer and equally as effective alternatives to chlorpyrifos. In fact, the company that makes chlorpyrifos makes the alternatives, as well. In spite of the concern, chlorpyrifos continues to be the most widely used insecticide in the U.S. Many farmers have switched to alternate insecticides. California and Hawaii are the states still vying for first place in volume usage. In some 100 countries, it is still used on more than 50 food crops.
Chlorpyrifos is made by Dow Sciences, which is a branch of the agribusiness giant Dow Chemical. The battle between Dow and the EPA is longstanding. In 1995, the company was fined $732,000 for failing to disclose more than 100 reports of chlorpyrifos poisoning. At the time chlorpyrifos was the most-used household and yard insect killer; those reports mostly involved exposure in the home. They triggered further research which resulted in a 2000 EPA ban on home use of the chemical citing concerns of harm to children.
It is no secret that this administration is hostile to rules designed to protect against unfettered business practices of corporations. Dow and the pesticide industry trade group CropLife America have been pushing the EPA to backtrack on the proposed ban of chlorpyrifos on food crops. A Dow lobbyist was among the first to sign on to Trump’s transition team.
Dow gave $1 million to the inaugural committee. The chairman and CEO of Dow was recently named by Trump to chair the American Manufacturing Council. We have only 60 days to petition for the reversal of Pruitt’s decision. After that time, we have to live with chlorpyrifos use on food crops at least until Oct. 1. 2022, before federal law requires the next re-evaluation of the chemical to determine appropriate use and possible hazards.
Write, call and talk with every person in power and ask that they do everything in their power to get Pruitt to change this utterly irresponsible decision. Share this information with every person and every news source you know. It is way past time to follow the science (and dare I say it, the money) to get chlorpyrifos out of our food supply.