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Federal appeals court won’t stop EPA from using controversial pesticide

Chlorpyrifos is correlated with harmful neurodevelopmental issues.

CREDIT: Pixabay
CREDIT: Pixabay

A federal appeals court on Tuesday threw out an appeal of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision not to ban chlorpyrifos, a highly controversial pesticide linked to neurodevelopmental issues.

The ruling follows a motion last month made by environmental and farmworker groups asking the EPA to finalize a ban on chlorpyrifos.

“The panel held that EPA had complied with the panel’s previous orders by issuing a ‘final response to the petition,’” the court order read in part. “The panel further held that the [petitioners’] mandamus motion was premature, and its substantive objections to the EPA’s denial must first be made through the administrative process mandated by statute.”

In 2007, advocacy groups, including the Pesticide Action Network North America and Natural Resources Defense Council, called on the EPA to revoke all food tolerances — the maximum amount of pesticides allowed on a food product — and to halt any legal use of chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos is most commonly used to control pests on crops like almonds, broccoli, and cauliflower.

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But nothing happened. Since then, these groups have continued to petition the EPA to respond to a study done by the agency which found a pattern of decreased neurodevelopmental outcomes in young children. Under the Obama administration, the EPA twice proposed a revocation of the pesticide on all food crops as regulated by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, but the agency never finalized a rule banning the pesticide. After multiple delays, a federal judge gave the EPA a March 31, 2017 deadline to take action.

In March, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the agency would formally postpone action on chlorpyrifos’ use on food-grade products. In a reversal of his agency’s previous direction, which appeared to be toward diminishing the agricultural use of chlorpyrifos, Pruitt said that the EPA would study the “unresolved” effects of the insecticide through 2022.

Two months after Pruitt’s decision, the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice and several other organizations asked federal appeals court judges to order the EPA to make a decision on a ban now, using the current science, but the court declined. In its ruling, the court wrote, “Although we previously condemned EPA’s ‘egregious’ delay in responding to PANNA’s petition, the agency has now complied with our orders by issuing a ‘final response to the petition.’”

The court ruling now means the EPA can take another five years to take action on the chemical. Until that time, the agricultural industry will remain reliant on the product.

“EPA scientists have said for more than two years that this pesticide is unsafe, particularly to children,” Patti Goldman, the managing attorney of Earthjustice, said Tuesday in a press release. “Any delay in banning this toxic chemical is a tragedy for families and farmworkers.”

Dow Agrosciences, a division of Dow Chemical that manufactures chlorpyrifos, has consistently sided with Pruitt’s decision, pointing out that “authorized uses of chlorpyrifos products offer wide margins of protection for human health and safety.”

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Many studies have found a strong link between chlorpyrifos — which works by attacking the nervous system of bugs — and neurodevelopmental problems in exposed children and health issues for farmworkers. Among the chief concerns are that exposure could be linked to diminished brain function and lower IQ among children with developing bodies. Exposure to high dosages of the insecticide could lead to respiratory paralysis or death.

Farmworkers, particularly immigrant workers, are at greatest risk of lingering health problems because they have the most direct contact to insecticides through direct spray, aerial drift, and contact with residues. They also could bring the insecticide home in the form of residues left on tools, clothes, shoes, and skin.

“It is long past time to permanently ban all uses of chlorpyrifos. The EPA and their scientists have repeatedly said that this pesticide is not safe,” Erik Nicholson, National Vice President of United Farm Workers, said in a press statement. “We are extremely disappointed in the courts and the EPA for not upholding the law and focusing on the well-being of workers and their children who live in areas surrounded by pesticides.”