It took a court order and a virtual avalanche of scientific evidence, but federal pesticide regulators finally did the right thing. Late last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans to put a stop to agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos. Yes!!
This is such a very important win. Once the rule is final, farmworkers and families in rural communities will no longer be exposed to an incredibly neurotoxic pesticide. And across the country, kids' intelligence will no longer be undermined by low-level exposures to this brain-harming chemical in their food, water and air.
Plus — and this is perhaps most exciting — EPA seems to now recognize that kids deserve protection from other pesticides that may have similar impacts on their developing brains. Precaution, anyone?
A sweet, long overdue victory
While we celebrate this excellent news, it's important to note that it should have happened years ago. EPA banned home use of chlorpyrifos back in 2000, in response to already strong evidence that the chemical was harming children's developing brains. In the years since, studies continued to pile up confirming links to falling IQs, autism and ADHD — even at very low levels of exposure.
Incredibly, millions of pounds of chlorpyrifos have continued to be sprayed in agricultural fields across the country, year after year.
Communities near these fields — including hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren in rural California — are on the frontlines of exposure to this drift-prone chemical. But it's not just rural folks who are in harm's way. According to government sampling, chlorpyrifos residues are found on many fruits and veggies, including childhood staples like apples, peaches and broccoli.
Over the years, PAN has collaborated with partner groups in affected communities across the country to document chlorpyrifos in the air with our Drift Catchers. We've also worked with experts to show metabolites of the chemical in people's bodies, and with allies to highlight the health harms farmworkers face.
It took all this — along with courageous community members, savvy lawyers and outspoken public health experts — to finally spur EPA to act. But honestly, if federal regulators were doing their job as they should, chlorpyrifos would have been banned long ago.
Two generations later...
According to the 9th circuit court, EPA's failure to act sooner on the strong science showing chlorpyrifos health harms was an "egregious delay," leading the judges to set the October 30 deadline that resulted in last week's announcement.
This delay matters a lot, and here's why: research shows that chlorpyrifos can cause the most damage to developing brains when exposure happens in the womb and during the first seven years of life. Even at very low levels, such as those commonly found on produce, exposure at a key moment of development can have impacts that last a lifetime — like changes in brain architecture, or lower IQs.
Given this seven-plus year window of vulnerability, EPA's 15-year delay means two entire generations of children may not reach their full potential. As Dr. Bruce Lanphear, MD, MPH captures in his recent video, Little Things Matter, impacting children's brain development has tremendous implications for society as a whole.
Getting across the finish line
Last week's announcement triggers a 60-day public comment period, and EPA says there will be at least two more before the agency finalizes their plan to "revoke all tolerances" — meaning allowable residues of chlorpyrifos on food — by the end of the year.
So we're not quite to the finish line yet. We expect tremendous pushback from the pesticide industry, especially from Dow AgroSciences, the corporation that manufactures chlorpyrifos products. PAN and our partners will be keeping a close eye on EPA to ensure the agency doesn't roll back any parts of its plan under industry pressure.
We'll also be working to ensure that farmers who currently rely on chlorpyrifos get the support they need to put safer alternatives in place.
But for now, we're celebrating this win. In a joint press release last Friday, longtime colleague Virginia Ruiz of Farmworker Justice noted that this is "a step forward on the path to environmental justice." There are certainly more steps needed, but this is a big one. And we're going to make sure EPA does its job in the end, and chlorpyrifos is out of our fields and off our food for good.