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EPA Rolls Back Plans to Ban Harmful Pesticide

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Despite compelling evidence indicating harm to children, the Environmental Protection Agency has postponed plans to ban chlorpyrifos.

By Stephanie Wood Posted May 23, 2017

Tractor spraying pesticide
With the current US administration shifting government focus away from environmental issues, one hazard that has been put on the backburner is chlorpyrifos, a common pesticide used in agriculture and on turf in the United States. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had been working on banning the chemical outright, the agency has since discarded its plans. Efforts to limit the use of chlorpyrifos trace back to the early 2000s. The question is: why the hold up? And what’s the significance of yet another delay?

Ban in Household Use

Chlorpyrifos, which emerged in the 1960s along with many other pesticides, was banned from domestic use by the EPA back in 2000 after the agency concluded direct exposure could be harmful to humans. At the time, chlorpyrifos was a common household pesticide used against insects like termites.

Despite the domestic ban, chlorpyrifos is still widely used today. The EPA has estimated that approximately 10 million pounds of chlorpyrifos is applied annually in the United States in agriculture alone. Used to treat common plants such as strawberries, apples, grapes, almonds and other nut trees, cabbage, peppers, wheat, soybeans, and even Christmas trees, chlorpyrifos is also permitted for structural treatment in buildings and industrial plants, and on golf courses and other turfs.

Golf course

Implications for Children’s Health

Research at Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Developmental Health has raised concerns about the pesticide’s effects on children’s neurodevelopment. One of the professors directing these studies is Professor Virginia Rauh, a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the EPA. Rauh has focused on perinatal epidemiology and the impact of pesticides on children before and after birth.

Her studies have concluded that chlorpyrifos is associated with developmental issues, such as ADHD, poor memory, and delayed motor development. One study also cited higher incidences of nausea and tremors for children who had been prenatally exposed to chlorpyrifos when compared to those who had not. These studies included children before and after chlorpyrifos was banned from domestic use.

Other scientists have been skeptical of the studies coming out of Columbia, arguing that the research is inconclusive and does not prove a cause-and-effect correlation between chlorpyrifos and slowed child development.

Controversy in the EPA

The EPA has reassessed chlorpyrifos several times since its household ban: in 2006, 2009, 2015, and 2017. Largely based on the studies conducted at Columbia by Rauh and other researchers, in 2015 the EPA concluded the risk of chlorpyrifos was great enough to justify a universal ban on the pesticide. The EPA began to put together a proposal to enforce this ban.

The proposed ban didn’t go over well with farmers or the distributor of chlorpyrifos, Dow AgroSciences (a subsidiary of the parent company, Dow Chemicals). Some farmers argue they depend on chlorpyrifos too much for it to be banned, since it remains the most commonly used pesticide in the United States. Dow AgroSciences also denied that the pesticide is harmful to humans when used correctly. Despite this resistance, the previous US administration seemed prepared to go ahead with the ban.

However, the EPA’s petition to ban chlorpyrifos was not completed until March 2017, after a changeover in US administration.

Protester with "Pruitt the Polluter" sign
When the EPA presented its research on the pesticide in March, the agency concluded that the pesticide was indeed harmful to humans and children were most vulnerable. Despite these findings, the new EPA head, Scott Pruitt denied the petition to ban chlorpyrifos, instead calling for further research. Any action on chlorpyrifos is now delayed until the next scheduled reassessment of the chemical, which is in 2022.

Sacrificing Public Health?

The EPA’s abandonment of the chlorpyrifos ban has raised concern among environmentalists and scientists who agree chlorpyrifos is harmful to children. To the outside observer, another five years may not seem like such a long delay for an issue that’s been debated since 2000. On the other hand, it does not bode well for any meaningful action being taken on an issue that has already been deferred for nearly two decades.

It’s hard to predict the future of chlorpyrifos in the United States. However, the country is not alone in its dependence on the pesticide. About one hundred other countries still allow chlorpyrifos, including Canada. Notably, the European Union has banned chlorpyrifos along with several other pesticides.

Without the cooperation of the EPA or the present administration, individual action will likely be the only resistance to the prevalent use of chlorpyrifos. This includes more research by professionals like Professor Rauh, more public protest, and more Americans making the choice to buy organic or grow their own food. However, unless these movements are done on such a scale to create a negative effect on the economy, chlorpyrifos is likely to have at least a few more years and many more millions of pounds’ worth of production before facing another obstacle.

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EPA rolls back plan to ban harmful pesticide

Author photo
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Stephanie Wood is a freelance writer from North Vancouver, BC, with a special interest in environmental journalism. She enjoys hiking trails, finding thrift and antique treasures, and traveling abroad.
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