EPA Bans Chlorpyrifos on Food Crops

This victory for health and safety has been delayed by over 20 years—decades of poisoned wildlife and people, especially children, could have been avoided with prudent early action.

A small yellow plane sprays pesticides over a farm

Joseph Gage via Flickr, CC BY-SA 4.0

Great news! This year – for the first time since it was approved in 1965 – chlorpyrifos will not be used on food crops in the U.S.

Chlorpyrifos is now banned from use on any food sold in the U.S. (see Final Rule here and EPA summary here). This is a victory of science and the law over the poisonous profits of big agrochemical companies, and certainly there is much to celebrate. Food will be safer for our families. Farmworkers will be safer when working in the fields. Our rivers, lakes, and drinking water will be safer without chlorpyrifos running off fields into waterways. Even wildlife will be safer – birds, fish, and bees – without chlorpyrifos.

But this victory for health and safety has been delayed by over 20 years – decades of poisoned wildlife and people, especially children, could have been avoided with prudent early action.

The Scientific History of Chlorpyrifos’ Harm

This is the result of the steady accumulation of decades of scientific evidence of harm, including: industry-sponsored lab studies of rodents showing that chlorpyrifos harms babies’ developing brains; countless farmworker poisonings; and, over a decade of epidemiologic studies of the toxic effects of the chemical on children exposed to the chemical in the womb. Those studies showed that chlorpyrifos exposure was associated with long-term harm to children’s brain function, including loss of IQ and impaired working memory.

Back in 1989, my predecessors at NRDC issued a groundbreaking report called Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in our Children’s Food. Our report detailed the human health risks posed by pesticides, with a special emphasis on several specific hazardous chemicals including the terrible risks posed by the class of several dozen insecticides called Organophosphates, or OPs for short. Chlorpyrifos (trade names Dursban and Lorsban) is an OP, and so is tetrachlorvinphos (TCPV) still used in pet flea and tick collars.

Then, in 1993 the National Academy of Sciences issued its seminal report on Pesticides In the Diet of Infants and Children that called out OP insecticides as one of the most dangerous class of pesticides. The report specifically mentioning chlorpyrifos as absorbed more extensively in young animals compared with adult animals, and noting that it was detected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in almost 5% of food tested, including kid’s favorites such as apples, peaches, pears, and orange juice (see Table 6-7, p. 265). The report found that often children are at higher risk from pesticides than are adults and urged that pesticides rules be fully protective of infants and children.

In response to the National Academies report, in 1996 Congress unanimously passed bipartisan legislation, the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), which both authorized and compelled the EPA to consider the special vulnerability of children when approving pesticides.

In 2000 (or, for those that remember, Y2K) in the wake of an NRDC lawsuit EPA used its new authorities under FQPA to ban chlorpyrifos and most other OP insecticides from residential indoor use. While that was certainly critical to protect urban children from the devastating effects of this brain-toxic class of pesticides, the negotiated agreement with the main manufacturer, Dow AgroSciences, meant that agriculture uses could continue, including uses on food crops. (see details in the Earthjustice report, August 2021). So, farmworkers continued to be poisoned while working, and pregnant women and children continued to be dosed with chlorpyrifos and other OPs  and exposed to residues in food and drinking water and other permitted uses (such as TCVP in pet collars).  It is tragic that even after EPA cancelled the indoor residential uses of chlorpyrifos due to excessive risks to pregnant women and children, EPA gave pesticide manufacturers like Dow AgroSciences 20 more years of chlorpyrifos sales, to continue poisoning our fields, farmworkers and food crops.

EPA in 2014 and again in 2016 re-confirmed that all uses for chlorpyrifos were unsafe and that toddlers were being exposed to it at levels 140 times greater than what the agency deemed safe.

Bringing the Science to the Courtroom

The chlorpyrifos ban on food crops is also the result of an early lawsuit brought by NRDC in 1999 to force EPA action on the riskiest pesticides, and then 5 subsequent successful court orders won by Earthjustice to force EPA action on a 2007 NRDC and Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) petition to ban chlorpyrifos. These Earthjustice lawsuits were filed on behalf of clients that included: League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), NRDC, PANNA, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Farmworker Association of Florida, Farmworker Justice, GreenLatinos, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Learning Disabilities Association of America, National Hispanic Medical Association, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, and United Farm Workers. (see Earthjustice for legal details)

This ban is a victory of the power of sustained advocacy, especially state-level advocacy that helped lay the groundwork for the federal ban. Farmworker advocates and labor and health groups, working together as the Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR) coalition, played crucial roles in winning a ban chlorpyrifos in California, preceded by Hawaii (effective 2023), and followed by New York (effective 2021), Maryland (effective 2021), and Oregon (effective 2023).

Farmworker Justice experts warned that while EPA's ban on the use of chlorpyrifos on food crops will deliver significant protections for environmental and farmworker advocates, EPA is still allowing some non-food uses of chlorpyrifos, such on golf courses, ornamental plants, and non-bearing fruit trees (See Earthjustice for details of remaining uses). The agency is expected to complete the review of these uses by October 1, 2022.  

“EPA must do the right thing and cancel the remaining uses of this highly toxic pesticide to protect the health of farmworkers and the environment”, said Mayra Reiter on behalf of farmworkers.

Farmworker Association of Florida experts celebrated this victory, but lamented that it has been too long in coming. "For tens of thousands of farmworkers, it is only a partial victory, as pregnant women, who work in greenhouses and nurseries that grow ornamental plants, and their children are still at grave risk of exposure, to chlorpyrifos and a host of other organophosphate pesticides.”

Jeannie Economos, on behalf of farmworkers, said: “EPA must look beyond the statistics, and look into the eyes of a mother whose child has learning disabilities or autism only because while she was pregnant, she depended on a job that did not value her enough to protect her from these chemicals. The mother pays, the child pays, and ultimately our society pays every day from the health consequences of these pesticides that continue to be used with impunity."  

Pesticide poisoning disproportionately harms low-income and communities of color  

A recently published scientific study confirms that people of color and low-income communities are at disproportionately greater risk of pesticide exposure (Donley et al 2022). Those at highest risk include: farmworkers, roughly 80 percent of whom identify as Hispanic; residents of inner-city urban and low-income and public housing, where the majority of residents identify as Hispanic or Black; and living in close proximity to one of the 31 U.S. pesticide manufacturing facilities.

The study found that people of color make up about 38 percent of the population in states with pesticide manufacturing facilities (CA, LA, GA, SC, TN, AK, MO), but over 60 percent of the population living within a mile of a pesticide facilities that, as of November 2021, the EPA deemed in “significant violation” of environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act (see study report in The Guardian).

The study concludes that, “This is not simply a pesticides issue, but a broader public health and civil rights issue. The true fix is to shift the USA to a more just system based on the Precautionary Principle to prevent harmful pollution exposure to everyone, regardless of skin tone or income” (Donley et al 2022)

Organophosphate pesticides still poisoning people and wildlife

EPA has still not addressed the health risks from the remaining organophosphate pesticides (OPs), the chemical cousins of chlorpyrifos. See Earthjustice for details about uses and hazards of the remaining OPs.

Two more OP pesticides, phosmet and malathion, both pose risks of concern to children and adults from exposures at pick-your-own farms, according to EPA evaluations.

In addition to human health risks, in 2018 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service have determined that chlorpyrifos and two other organophosphate pesticides (diazinon and malathion) jeopardize the survival of 97 percent of threatened or endangered species and their designated critical habitats.

Today - Court rules EPA must revise its flawed evaluation of OPs in pet collars

The author's two cats, one orange and one black, sit near a window

Tetrachlorvinphos, or TCVP, is another OP pesticides that continues to poison pregnant women and children, through its use in pet flea and tick collars.  Despite EPA determining TCVP pet collars pose serious health risks to children in 2016 and a 2020 court ruling critiquing EPA’s many years of delay and requiring EPA action, the agency still refused to ban the products.  

This week (April 20, 2022) a federal court ruled that the EPA must revise its misleading assessment of the impacts of TCVP. This legal ruling comes after a thirteen-year legal battle between EPA and NRDC to remove the last uncontrolled in-home use of organophosphates.

NRDC Senior Scientist Miriam Rotkin-Ellman said, “EPA’s 2020 risk analysis was profoundly flawed in its approach and conclusions. It has needlessly delayed the removal of these dangerous products and further exposed millions of children to serious, life-long health risks. With the court’s decision, EPA must follow the science and protect children from the dangers of TCVP collars. EPA should prioritize children’s health over the interests of the chemical industry and act quickly to close the door on dangerous organophosphate uses in the home.”

No more delays – Federal action is needed to cancel all remaining chlorpyrifos-like pesticides

In November 2021, Earthjustice on behalf of farmworker groups  petitioned EPA to cancel all the remaining harmful uses of OP pesticides. The Pesticide Office should grant that petition immediately – it is needed to protect children’s health, follows the science, and holds EPA to the law.

Additionally, the Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act (S. 3283 PACTPA) would prohibit some of the most damaging pesticides, including the remaining OP pesticides, if enacted. The legislation is introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and co-sponsored by Senators Gillibrand (D-NY), Sanders (I-VT), Warren (D-MA), and Padilla (D-CA).

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