EPA rejects calls to ban pesticide linked to brain damage

The agency sided with the chemical company manufacturing the product, putting farmworkers most at risk.

Apples at a farmers market. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Apples at a farmers market. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The Environmental Protection Agency has rejected a strong call to ban the use of chlorpyrifos, a widely-used insecticide that has been linked to human health problems, against the advisement of the agency’s own scientific recommendations.

Late Wednesday night, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected a petition from environmental groups to stop the use of chlorpyrifos, manufactured by Dow AgroSciences under the name Lorsban, on the grounds that the agency needs to “provide regulatory certainty” for the thousands of U.S. farms that rely on chlorpyrifos.

The EPA banned the chemical for residential use more than a decade ago, but it only sought to ban agricultural use of the pesticide in 2015, after increasing evidence pointed to risks to fetal development and neurotoxic poisoning. The agency’s proposed ban was also in response to a petition and lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other environmental and human rights groups. A federal judge gave the EPA until March 31, 2017 to take regulatory action based on its scientific assessment.

“By reversing the previous administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making — rather than predetermined results,” Pruitt said in his statement. Departing from previous agency research, Pruitt concluded that “despite several years of study, the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved.”


The Department of Agriculture also supported Pruitt’s decision, saying that the continued use of the pesticide would prevent trade disruptions.

“It means that this important pest management tool will remain available to growers, helping to ensure an abundant and affordable food supply for this nation and the world,” Sheryl Kunickis, director of the Office of Pest Management Policy at the Department of Agriculture, said in a statement. “This frees American farmers from significant trade disruptions that could have been caused by an unnecessary, unilateral revocation of chlorpyrifos tolerances in the United States.”

Dow AgroSciences objected to the ban last year, claiming that the Obama administration’s “assessment lacks scientific rigor.”

The decision by Pruitt — who was one of the loudest opponents of the EPA as it was led under President Barack Obama — marked a sharp reversal in the agency’s position on scientific research recommended by EPA scientists.


Chlorpyrifos, a commonly-used organophosphate insecticide in use since 1965, is sprayed on a variety of crops including oranges, apples, cherries, grapes, and broccoli. It is a neurotoxic insecticide that works by attacking the nervous systems of insects. At high doses in humans, it could cause nausea, dizziness, and confusion. At even higher doses, it could cause respiratory paralysis or death, according to the EPA.

A Dow spokesperson previously told the publication East Bay Express that their product is safe when growers follow the pesticide label’s instruction. But farmworkers and children are still susceptible to exposure, particularly because of the vulnerabilities of the two populations: farmworkers are close to the source and children still have developing bodies. It’s not clear that either population can escape pesticide exposure from residue left on clothing or drifting from one field to another.

Farmworkers are exposed from the food they eat, their drinking water, from exposures when they’re working and drift from one field to the next.

“This is a widely used pesticide, and farmworkers are exposed from the food they eat, their drinking water, from exposures when they’re working and [from] drift from one field to the next or one field to the workers’ homes or the schools where their children go,” Patti Goldman, managing attorney at the advocacy group EarthJustice, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview Thursday.

Goldman explained that workers who mix and apply the pesticide are the ones who are most exposed, followed by workers who go into the fields to pick the crops. And both types of workers have residue on their shoes and clothing, which they bring home.

“All of those residues come home with them — and then the children are exposed,” Goldman said. “Often, the farmworker housing is right near the fields so the children are exposed from pesticide drift as well.”


Growers also may not necessarily ensure a safe working environment for their farmworkers. Farmworker advocates previously told ThinkProgress that younger farmworkers may not feel comfortable challenging their supervisors or employers about the potential harm of a pesticide. Advocates pointed out that farmworkers may not be able to run away fast enough when a plane douses them with pesticides from overhead.

Scientific research has found a strong link between chlorpyrifos and human health risks. UC Berkeley researchers — who recruited 600 pregnant women who mostly worked on farms or lived with farmworkers — found a strong correlation between pregnant women’s exposure to these types of pesticides with lower IQ and poorer cognitive functioning in children. A 2012 Columbia University study found that even low to moderate exposure during pregnancy could lead to long-term damage in the fetus.

The use of this insecticide will likely increase. Already in 2013, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) found that farmers used 1.5 million pounds of chlorpyrifos — a 32 percent rise from the amount of chlorpyrifos used in 2012 — in part to ward off high populations of leaf-footed bugs and navel orangeworms found in the state’s almond crops, East Bay Express reported.

Goldman said that her organization will likely call on the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit — the court that sued the EPA to force a decision — to get another order for the EPA to take an action.

“The EPA is not allowed to keep this pesticide on the market if it is unable to find that it is safe, so we will ask the court to require the EPA to make a final safety determination and ban the pesticide if it cannot make that safety finding,” Goldman said.