Some homeowners might remember dusting their lawns with a product called Dursban to kill insect pests. The product, whose active ingredient was chlorpyrifos, was one of the most popular pesticides on the market.
But that was more than 15 years ago. Chlorpyrifos was banned from consumer products and residential uses nationwide by the Environmental Protection Agency because of risks to humans, especially children. Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate, a class of chemicals commonly used in nerve agent weapons.
A number of studies have indicated that exposure to chlorpyrifos, even in low doses, can inhibit the brain development of children, especially in infants, even when exposure occurs in the womb. Chlorpyrifos, according to the studies, can result in lower IQ and higher rates of autism, attention deficit disorders and hyperactivity.
A great deal of attention has been focused on the danger of BPA (bosphenolA), a common additive to plastic that also is thought to be toxic to humans. But a large study by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine found what it called “compelling” evidence that exposure to chlorpyrifos is harmful and that the case against it is “much stronger” than that against BPA.
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But while chlorpyrifos has been banned for residential uses, it still is commonly used by farmers. An estimated 5 million to 10 million pounds of chlorpyrifos are used each year on crops nationwide, including almonds and other tree nuts, soybeans, corn, wheat, apples and citrus fruits.
And despite the limitations on the use of the pesticide, people still are ingesting it in their food. And toddlers, because of their small body weight, are most susceptible to higher concentrations of chlorpyrifos than older children or adults.
In October 2015, the EPA, after more than a decade of study, determined that the threat from chlorpyrifos in drinking water and as residue on food, posed an unacceptable risk to the public. The agency proposed a new rule that essentially amounted to a ban on the use of the chemical for any purpose.
But in 2016 Donald Trump won the presidency – in part on the promise to undo environmental regulations he regarded as stifling business. Among his first cabinet nominees was former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a non-scientist who shared Trump’s aversion to government regulation, as head of EPA.
Pruitt essentially is the fox anointed by Trump to guard the hen house. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that, during his confirmation hearings, Pruitt could not identify a single EPA regulation on the books today that he supports.
And apparently he isn’t fond of new regulations either. On April 29, Pruitt signed an order denying the EPA’s own proposal to ban chlorpyrifos.
“We need to provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos, while still protecting human health and the environment,” Pruitt said in a written statement. “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.”
While Pruitt asserts that the decision to ban the use of chlorpyrifos is based on predetermined results, it is the most highly reviewed pesticide in its class with more than 2,000 studies and reports published that evaluate its impact on the environment and human health. That is the evidence the EPA – under the administration of President Barack Obama – used to reach its conclusions.
And there’s the rub. If it was a decision made during the Obama era, it needed to be reversed.
Trump last month said he decided to launch missiles into Syria after being moved to do so by the horrific sight of children killed by chemical weapons dropped by Syrian government forces. Apparently, however, he is less moved by the prospect of millions of U.S. children potentially being poisoned by a nerve agent used by industrial farms to control pests.
A little consistency would be nice. So would an EPA that performs the functions it was designed for.
James Werrell is opinion page editor of The Herald.