The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to overturn a court-ordered deadline to ban chlorpyrifos, abdicating its mission to protect human health and the environment.
In 2016, with over 30 years of data, the Obama administration ordered a ban on chlorpyrifos. But under the Trump administration, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reversed that decision. Last August, a court ordered the EPA to finalize a ban by early October. Prior to that deadline, the EPA filed its appeal allowing the continued use of a pesticide its own scientists said was too dangerous for children and endangered species to be exposed to.
Simultaneously, the head of the Office of Children’s Health Protection whose office published a report on the adverse effects of chlorpyrifos was put on leave, the chief of EPA’s research office was replaced with a Koch industry engineer, and plans to eliminate the Office of the Science Advisor were announced — an apparent “scorched earth” approach to silence internal efforts to conduct and report sound science.
As an entomologist who for two decades implemented EPA programs protecting children from pests and pesticides and officially advised EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs from 2010 to 2017, I was alarmed when Pruitt decided to keep chlorpyrifos on the market.
I conducted field trials on cotton with Dow's agricultural formulation of chlorpyrifos, Lorsban, in the mid-1980s as an entomologist with the University of Arizona. Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate — a class of insecticides that inhibit nerve function.
At the time, chlorpyrifos was probably the most used insecticide in American farms and homes, typically sprayed in fields and topically applied to livestock or sprayed around homes and used in baits, pet shampoos and collars. As an EPA registered “safe” product it was known as Raid by homeowners, Dursban by exterminators, or Lorsban in the fields.
But scientific knowledge advances, and in the 1990s numerous studies demonstrated the harmful and ubiquitous effect of organophosphates on children, that it moved through our rivers and negatively impacted endangered species. Alarmingly, it appeared that this nerve agent bonded well with soft plastic, the type used to make toys that young children love to put in their mouths. By 2000 Dow discontinued use of Dursban where children live, visit and play.
The American Academy of Pediatrics disputed the use of chlorpyrifos in the early 2000s and in 2012 directly implicated pesticides and negative outcomes including brain anomalies in children. So why was chlorpyrifos not banned prior to 2016?
Unquestionably, the major reason was lobbying by the pesticide trade groups and agricultural producers. As a Federal Advisory Committee Act member, I watched interest groups coordinate with politically powerful groups to oppose any regulatory restriction or “right to know” regarding pesticides. They lobbied that chlorpyrifos provided a cheap and reliable tool for farmers and that its impact on “non-target organisms” was not a major concern.
In late 2017, opposing EPA’s own science, Pruitt rejected the ban with the assistance of newly hired decision-makers formerly with industry trade groups and appointed pro-pesticide advisors.
Over my 40 years practicing pest management, I witnessed the influence of pesticide manufacturers and grower associations over government agencies and universities. The two most common phrases used by lobbyists are “there is not enough ‘sound’ science to take action” and “the American farmer cannot afford to lose this valuable tool.” As an advisor to EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, I heard similar comments delivered to our pesticide regulators during public forums. The pressure for the continued use of chlorpyrifos became particularly insistent in 2017, remarkably not only from lobbyists but also from the USDA and its state agricultural agency counterparts.
Good farmers have many tools for protecting their crops including alternative pesticides. They now can subvert the lifecyles of pests, preserve the natural enemies of pests and make use of other scientific innovations in an Integrated Pest Management approach.
Most American farmers are willing to play by the rules. They are members of our communities and care about the health of their children. The best of them know they do not have to rely on products that harm children and endangered species. They know the price they pay is environmental health risk and the cost of pesticide resistance.
Delaying the ban on chlorpyrifos and stifling the public’s scientists is unethical and dangerous. Upholding the ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court siding with EPA's own scientists will force the agency to adhere to its mission. Maintaining chlorpyrifos is an unnecessary subsidy for industry and harmful for humans and the environment.
Marc L. Lame is an entomologist and clinical professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.