Environmental and public health advocates slammed a decision this week by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to not ban a pesticide linked to brain damage in children, in defiance of a 2018 federal court ruling.
Critics say the move continues a trend under President Donald Trump’s EPA of taking actions seen as favorable to the chemical industry. But experts also indicated that it could be a watershed moment for litigation as groups push back against the decision.
“It is a tragedy that this administration sides with corporations instead of children’s health,” Patti Goldman, an attorney for the group Earthjustice, said in a statement. “But this is only a setback.”
On Thursday, the EPA announced that it would not ban chlorpyrifos, despite years of pressure to do so from a broad array of advocacy groups. The agency argued that “critical questions remained regarding the significance of the data” surrounding the pesticide’s health impacts, asserting that an Obama-era proposal to ban chlorpyrifos was based on insufficient studies.
The decision marks the latest escalation in a decades-long battle. Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate pesticide patented by the Dow Chemical Company and used on crops like broccoli and grapes, as well as on animals and in buildings, in order to kill pests. It is in the same family of chemicals as sarin gas, and studies have linked the pesticide to premature births, respiratory problems, and cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers chlorpyrifos moderately hazardous to humans and its impacts on both children and farmworkers have been documented by opponents of its use for years.
In 2015, the Obama administration moved to ban chlorpyrifos, but Trump reversed that decision after taking office. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected his own agency’s findings about the pesticide in 2017, in what was largely seen at the time as a win for the chemical industry. Dow and others have sought to keep the government from regulating their products.
The EPA under Trump has kept close ties with groups like the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry trade organization of which Dow is a member. Several EPA officials under the Trump administration have come from ACC and have maintained frequent communications with the group. Lobbying records also show that ACC’s requests and EPA regulation decisions have often been in lock-step under Trump.
Responding to the Trump administration’s decision on Thursday, advocates pointed to the victory for chemical companies.
“The Trump administration continues to support the profits of big chemical companies at the expense of the health of our children, farmers and farm workers,” said Madeleine Foote, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters.
Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) similarly argued that the EPA was taking the side of “pesticide corporations over the health and well-being of kids,” while Goldman of Earthjustice condemned the decision as a favor to the industry.
But advocates also struck a positive tone, with groups like Earthjustice implying that they will take legal action against the decision. That move would likely force the EPA to explain why the agency is disregarding the science surrounding the dangers of chlorpyrifos — potentially paving the way for a groundbreaking ruling on the pesticide that could see it banned nationwide.
Advocates have cause for optimism, as the government has faced hurdles in court over chlorpyrifos under Trump. Pruitt pledged that the EPA would reassess the science surrounding the impacts of the pesticide and make a final decision in 2022. In August 2018, however, a federal appeals court ordered the EPA to ban chlorpyrifos within 60 days. The Trump administration appealed that ruling, only to face a court ruling in April mandating that the EPA make a decision on the pesticide.
The EPA has said it will address concerns over chlorpyrifos through a review to be completed “well before” the 2022 deadline previously set by the agency.
Many farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are also in support of the EPA’s decision not to ban the pesticide. USDA head Sonny Perdue tweeted Thursday thanking the EPA for the agency’s “support of American farmers and producers in its commitment to fact-based regulatory oversight of crop protection tools.”
But as fights play out at the federal level, local governments are taking their own steps to target chlorpyrifos. States including California and New York have sought to ban the pesticide and are looking to transition away from its use. And last year, Hawaii banned chlorpyrifos, a move which takes effect in 2022.