UPDATE (April 20, 2017): Apparently the Dow Chemical Company is not content with a win. As I wrote below last month, the EPA under Scott Pruitt made an about-face, opting to override his own agency’s science on the damaging effects of chlorpyrifos on children’s developing brains and continuing to allow Dow to market the pesticide to farmers.
Now, according to news reports, lawyers representing Dow and two manufacturers of related insecticides have sent letters to Pruitt, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, and Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke urging them to “to set aside” the results of an extensive EPA assessment of these chemicals’ effects on endangered wildlife.
The EPA, Commerce (which includes the Natural Marine Fisheries Service), and Interior (which includes the Fish and Wildlife Service) have collective authority to enforce the Endangered Species Act. The EPA’s January 2017 evaluation found that chlorpyrifos is “likely to adversely affect” 1,778 of the 1,835 animals and plants it reviewed, including endangered or threatened species of frogs, fish, birds, and mammals. Dow says the Trump administration should throw out that assessment because its “scientific basis was not reliable.”
What are the chances President Trump and his cabinet officials will resist Dow’s pressure tactics and stand up for EPA science? Given the fact that Dow CEO Andrew Liveris cut the Trump inaugural committee a million-dollar check and now heads a White House manufacturing initiative, I’m going to say, not likely.
At the risk of exhausting you with more evidence of the Trump administration’s contempt for science and the public interest, here’s another assault. After years of study and deliberation by scientists at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and elsewhere, new EPA head Scott Pruitt announced Wednesday night that he would not ban a pesticide that poses a clear risk to children, farm workers, and rural drinking water users.
In doing so, the administration made a 180-degree turn, handing a win to the pesticide’s maker, Dow AgroSciences (a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company) and a loss to pretty much everyone else.
An about-face on the science
Let’s be clear, the EPA doesn’t just regulate chemicals willy-nilly. It usually has to be pushed, sometimes hard. And in this case it was. Tom Philpott at Mother Jones has an excellent rundown of the years-long saga surrounding the nerve-damaging organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos at the EPA. Under a court order, EPA proposed in November 2015 to effectively ban this pesticide by revoking the agency’s “tolerances” (legal limits allowed in or on food) for the chemical:
At this time, the agency is unable to conclude that the risk from aggregate exposure from the use of chlorpyrifos meets the safety standard of section 408(b)(2) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). Accordingly, EPA is proposing to revoke all tolerances for chlorpyrifos.
When the EPA gets that close to banning a pesticide, you can bet the science is solid. So it’s shocking that, under another court-imposed deadline to finalize its decision this month, the agency’s new science-denier-in-chief abruptly backtracked, suggesting in his statement that the science of chlorpyrifos’s harmful effects isn’t settled.
That claim is disingenuous.
Chlorpyrifos poses a clear-cut risk to children, farmworkers, and rural residents
Chlorpyrifos has been studied extensively, and for years. Once the most commonly used pesticide in US homes, it has been increasingly regulated over the last two decades as scientific evidence of its harm has mounted. Almost all residential uses were eliminated in 2000 based on evidence of developmental neurotoxicity—that is, the chemical’s ability to damage the developing brains of fetuses and young children. Since then, many on-farm uses have also been restricted or banned.
But it’s not enough. The pesticide is still used on corn, soybeans, fruit and nut trees, certain vegetables including Brussels sprouts and broccoli, and other crops. And it’s still harming kids and workers.
Last year, researchers studying mothers and children living in the agricultural Salinas Valley of California documented that just living within a kilometer of farm fields where chlorpyrifos and other neurotoxic pesticides were used lowered IQs by more than two points in 7-year-old children, with corresponding impairment in verbal comprehension. Other studies have found that exposure in the womb is associated with changes in brain structure and function. Farm worker exposure is also a concern, as is exposure of rural residents through drinking water.
Which brings us back to the regulatory battle. Last fall, a coalition of environmental, labor, and health organizations petitioned the EPA to ban all remaining uses of chlorpyrifos, citing unacceptable risks to workers. In November, the EPA inched closer to a ban, revising its human health risk assessment and drinking water exposure assessment for chlorpyrifos. The agency summarized its conclusions this way:
This assessment shows dietary and drinking water risks for the current uses of chlorpyrifos. Based on current labeled uses, the revised analysis indicates that expected residues of chlorpyrifos on food crops exceed the safety standard under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). In addition, the majority of estimated drinking water exposure from currently registered uses, including water exposure from non-food uses, continues to exceed safe levels, even taking into account more refined drinking water exposure. This assessment also shows risks to workers who mix, load and apply chlorpyrifos pesticide products. (emphasis added)
The proposed ban was supported by independent scientists and a coalition of Latino, labor, and health organizations including the United Farm Workers.
Oh yeah, and it was supported by the science and the federal law meant to protect children from toxic pesticides.
EPA is legally required to ban pesticides that threaten health
In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences released a landmark report titled Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Based on a five-year study, the report recommended major changes in the way EPA regulated pesticides in order to protect children’s health, noting that children are not “little adults.” Three years later, Congress acted on those scientific recommendations, passing the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 unanimously (yes, I said unanimously, can you imagine?).
This breakthrough law mandated that the EPA go above and beyond what it had ever done before in considering the developmental susceptibility of infants and children, and their dietary habits, when making regulatory decisions about pesticides. The law built in a 10-fold “safety factor” to be sure kids would be protected.
Of course, children are only protected if the EPA follows the law and the science. And Dow kept the pressure on to ensure they wouldn’t. For now, Pruitt’s announcement represents “final agency action” on chlorpyrifos, and the EPA won’t be required to revisit the question of the pesticide’s safety until 2022. (Sorry, kids.)
How else might the Trump administration undermine science and children’s health?
This latest decision, along with the proposed slashing of EPA’s budget, leaves me wondering just how far the new administration will go in ignoring science and undoing children’s health protections. While the EPA budget cuts are getting a lot of attention, some health scientists are worried as well about the fate of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) as well. In partnership with EPA, NIEHS operates a national network of research centers studying children’s environmental health and educating the public about risks. If funding for those centers is also cut, who will look out for the health of children?
I spent years back in the late 90s and early aughts pressing Congress and the EPA to tighten the rules on toxic chemicals. We’re still not where we need to be, but we’ve made progress. And now it looks like that progress is very much at risk.