Trump Administration 'Relentless' in Push to Keep Pesticide Linked to Brain Damage in Children Available, Says Scientist

California will become the third state to ban the sale of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to brain damage in children—following in the footsteps of Hawaii and New York.

The remaining 47 states have not passed legislation to similar effect yet, but efforts are underway in Maryland, Connecticut and Oregon to enact bans on the pesticide, Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told Newsweek.

So, what is chlorpyrifos?

Chlorpyrifos (an organophosphate insecticide) is a chemical product used on a wide variety of crops, such as soya beans, alfalfa, citrus, almonds, cotton, grapes and walnuts. Pound-for-pound of active ingredient, corn is the largest agricultural market for chlorpyrifos—a product that kills several types of pests, including termites, mosquitoes and roundworms.

"Chlorpyrifos is an effective tool for pest management," a spokesperson from the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) told Newsweek. "Farmers choose to use chlorpyrifos because there are no alternatives that can be used in the same manner to provide targeted pest treatment like chlorpyrifos."

However, there is mounting scientific evidence to suggest that it also causes has harmful effects on humans—and the human fetus, in particular. Exposure in the womb, even at small doses, has been linked to lower IQs and neurodevelopmental conditions, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) and autism.

Though it should be said these studies are observational in nature and, therefore, do not establish a cause—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and AFBF both dispute the data—the findings "support the need to avoid prenatal and infant exposure to pesticides to protect the developing child's brain," researchers at the University of California said in a BMJ editorial.

Exposure primarily involves the consumption of food products containing chlorpyrifos but can also involve inhaling contaminated air, drinking contaminated water supplies and absorption through the skin.

corn field
Pound-for-pound, corn is the largest agricultural market for chlorpyrifos. Scott Olson/Getty

Why the ban now?

In light of the scientific evidence, some states are taking the precaution of banning the pesticide outright. This month, California—the number one agriculture-producing state in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—became the third to pass a ban that will eventually prohibit chlorpyrifos use.

Hawaii was the first to introduce a ban, passing legislation in February 2018 in response to the inaction of federal government. It is currently in the process of phasing out all chlorpyrifos uses by 2023, Earth Justice reported at the time. New York followed in April. This means all uses of chlorpyrifos will have to be phased out by December 1, 2021, Friends of the Earth reported.

But in what appears to be an effort to do one better, California's ban—reached after an agreement with chlorpyrifos manufacturers—will require sales of the product to cease from February 6, 2020. Farmers will be able to use the product until December 31, 2020 but from that point onward, even possession is banned.

"For years, environmental justice advocates have fought to get the harmful pesticide chlorpyrifos out of our communities," Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement. "Thanks to their tenacity and the work of countless others, this will now occur faster than originally envisioned. This is a big win for children, workers and public health in California."

These state actions follow a reversal of federal policy. Both Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler, former and current administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) respectively, have confirmed the agency will not take the position it took under the Obama administration, when it proposed banning chlorpyrifos.

Wheeler argued a ban on the basis of neurodevelopmental toxicity is not supported by "valid, complete, and reliable evidence sufficient to meet the Petitioners' burden under the United States Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act."

"We're seeing a growing movement of states taking action while the federal government fails to," said Rotkin-Ellman. "Hawaii passed a ban in 2018. This year, New York's state legislature did the same (it awaits the Governor's signature), and we also saw movement toward a ban in Maryland, Connecticut and Oregon."

"The Trump administration, however, remains relentless in its push to keep this stuff on the market—making our ongoing litigation critical to extend these protections nationwide. In the meantime, these state successes are critical for public health. They also help garner more congressional support for legislation pending in both the Senate (Tom Udall, D-NM) and House (Nydia Velazquez D-NY) that would ban chlorpyrifos nationwide."

Karen Perry Stillerman, senior analyst and strategist in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, reiterates this point, telling Newsweek: "It's time to stop using this brain-damaging pesticide everywhere across the United States."

"Scientists have spent years studying the harmful effects of chlorpyrifos on children and farmworkers, and the EPA was ready to ban its use in 2017. The Trump administration's move to sideline science and reverse that decision as a gift to pesticide-maker Dow was shameful. States like California shouldn't have to step in one at a time to protect the public's health—that's the EPA's job."

The AFBF takes a more critical view of the ban. "State-by-state bans do little to protect supposed vulnerable populations and instead leave farmers without vital tools to provide food for our nation and the world," a spokesperson told Newsweek.

What's happening outside the U.S.?

Elsewhere in the world, several governments and organizations are looking to introduce their own bans on chlorpyrifos. In Canada, the country's Pest Management Regulatory Agency proposed canceling all uses of the pesticide in June 2019. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the European Union has submitted a World Trade Organization draft rule banning chlorpyrifos—the insecticide will no longer be authorized in the EU, starting in February 2020.

"A nationwide ban is the only way to protect farmworkers, rural families and children across the country from this toxic chemical. We will not stop fighting to extend these protections to everyone in the U.S.," said Rotkin-Ellman

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