EPA Bans Chlorpyrifos, Finally
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced this week that it would finally ban the insecticide chlorpyrifos, which has been linked to a number of neurological disorders, especially in children. The chemical has been the target of environmental and health groups for decades, and the pesticide has been banned for home use since 2000. This long-awaited move comes as a result of legal action started in 2007, but delayed by the Trump administration until this year.
What is Chlorpyrifos?
Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate, a family of chemicals that includes nerve agents like sarin and VX that were originally developed as chemical weapons. It’s a highly effective insecticide, but it’s extremely dangerous for people too.
The people most at risk for all pesticide poisonings are farmworkers who apply them and who work in the fields where they’re sprayed. Because chlorpyrifos is commonly used on fruit, vegetable and tree crops like strawberries, broccoli, nuts and citrus — all of which require hands-on labor to grow and harvest — it’s hard for workers to avoid contact with the chemical even when they follow proper protocols for application. Workers who are exposed even at low levels may encounter dizziness, nausea, confusion and trouble breathing. Over the long term, health outcomes are worse: chlorpyrifos can cause lasting nerve damage and increase risks of lung cancer.
But the risks of chlorpyrifos exposure are worst for children, infants and pregnant women: For them, chlorpyrifos is clearly associated with poor brain development, neurological problems and low birth weight. Children who live around farms, especially children of farmworkers, are the most at risk, with concentrations in farmworkers’ homes that are five times higher than normal.
Chlorpyrifos exposures can also come through residues on produce and in drinking water. Because residues degrade over time, the risks are much lower, but they can still be harmful to children, pregnant women and others. In 2016, the EPA found that residues of the insecticide were far higher than what they deemed safe, making the ban even more urgent.
Farmworkers and others in their communities who have the highest pesticide exposures tend to be poor people of color with limited access to medical treatment and legal protection, so the ban is a critical victory for environmental justice.
A Long Regulatory Battle
The health risks of chlorpyrifos exposure have been well-documented for decades, and the EPA’s announcement banning chlorpyrifos is the culmination of a legal battle that started in 2007. While the Obama administration attempted to ban the pesticide in 2015, the decision was quickly reversed by the Trump administration’s EPA. While a court ordered the EPA to take action on the pesticide in 2018, the agency was deliberately slow to act. It then denied the order outright, stating chlorpyrifos was too important to ban and falsely claiming the evidence against it was unreliable despite several conclusive, peer-reviewed studies and multiple declarations from public health groups . A second court declaration this April criticized the agency’s “egregious delay” and insisted they either prove the chemical was safe or withdraw it. The agency’s new head, Michael Regan, took the second option, which will take effect in six months.
In the meantime, several states passed their own legislation banning the pesticide. With California — one of the largest markets for the chemical — and other states out of the game, the largest manufacturer of the chemical, Corteva, also announced it would stop making the chemical in 2020. The decision may have been influenced by the company’s desire to avoid legal battles over the pesticide, much like Bayer’s recent decision to discontinue residential formulations of its herbicide Roundup after several costly lawsuits alleging the main ingredient, glyphosate, caused cancer.
The new rule doesn’t explicitly ban the sale of the pesticide or its use. Instead, it sets a zero-tolerance policy for chlorpyrifos residues on food products. It takes effect in six months, after which time any food found with residues can’t be sold. While this is essentially a ban on its use on agricultural products, the chemical may still be used on some non-food crops like cotton and Christmas trees, so people working on and living near these farms are still at risk. Farmers might continue to use the chemicals for another few months before the ban takes effect. Any unused chlorpyrifos after that point will need to be safely disposed of, though this presents contamination challenges if done improperly.
Legal challenges from agribusiness groups are likely, but given the large body of evidence against chlorpyrifos and the multiple stringent reviews already conducted by the agency, it’s unlikely any will succeed.
Meanwhile, many farmers will replace chlorpyrifos with other pesticides, many of which have their own health and environmental concerns. Other organophosphates remain on the market, and while some might be less toxic or less prone to drift, all are still dangerous to human health. Some farmers may fill in the gap by turning to neonicotinoids, which are dangerous to bees and other pollinators.
But with pressure to restrict neonicotinoids in the US increasing after a European ban, the action on chlorpyrifos is a good incentive for more farmers to focus on reducing chemical use overall through strategies like Integrated Pest Management, which relies on using beneficial insects and careful observation to minimize chemical usage. Though long overdue, the ban on chlorpyrifos is a good sign that Biden’s EPA will be more willing to go against the agrochemical industry in other big fights.
Top photo by sima/Adobe Stock.