Bad EPA Decision on Infamous Kid-Toxic Pesticide Expected Soon

A government-funded study by Columbia University researchers found the pesticide chlorpyrifos harms children’s brains, disrupting learning ability, attention span, and other brain functions.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

EPA has publicly promised that by the end of summer it will issue a new analysis of the risks from the widely used insecticide chlorpyrifos; we expect that reassessment will be published in the next several days. Regrettably, it’s likely that EPA political appointees will again block career agency experts from cancelling chlorpyrifos uses on food crops, notwithstanding overwhelming scientific evidence of harm. Instead, despite the law and science dictating otherwise, EPA is expected to greenlight continued widespread use of this highly toxic pesticide. It has been linked to numerous farmworker poisonings. And scientists at Columbia, as well as Stanford and U.C. Berkeley, and elsewhere have published studies showing the chemical harms the developing brains of young children, delaying development, harming memory, reducing attention span and IQ, and causing other adverse effects (see NRDC summary of chlorpyrifos harms).

The upcoming agency assessment is expected to track the pesticide industry’s lobbying campaign. Chemical companies have lobbied the agency to allow continued use of the pesticide and to ignore the epidemiological studies of children are harmed by prenatal chlorpyrifos exposure. Pesticide industry representatives met privately numerous times with EPA and have demanded that the agency reverse its 2015 and 2016 findings that chlorpyrifos is too toxic to children and must be banned.

In a closely-related matter, EPA separately is finalizing what is widely called the “Censoring Science Rule,” which agency political appointees cynically call a “transparency” measure. It is designed to effectively block many epidemiological studies, likely including the Columbia and Stanford/Berkeley studies of chlorpyrifos, from being considered. Leading scientific organizations strongly oppose that rule, yet EPA is expected to finalize it soon; the agency just delivered the final rule to the White House for approval on September 14, 2020.

EPA is expected to announce its reevaluation of chlorpyrifos in the coming days before it receives the final report from its Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP), which is meeting this week. The SAP is reviewing a joint proposal of the EPA and Exponent, a product-defense company, that was funded by agrochemical companies (see SAP Agenda showing EPA collaboration with Exponent). Their proposal will weaken the agency’s previous approach on chlorpyrifos and other members of the class of toxic insecticides known as organophosphates. Under this effort, the pesticide industry and EPA political appointees are pushing to not only ignore the epidemiological studies showing children are harmed by real-world uses of chlorpyrifos, but to also strip away the ‘uncertainty factors’ that are routinely applied to add a measure of protection for children, and to address uncertainties in the risk assessment.

Ironically—and dangerously—EPA is proposing to eliminate these uncertainty factors based on information gleaned from tests of cells in petri dishes. However, the SAP experts have noted that these tests introduce even more uncertainty to EPA’s assessment, including that they fail to capture the extreme complexity of brain development, don’t include the influence of hormones, and don’t include many important types of brain cells that influence development. The California EPA , and NRDC, Earthjustice and PANNA raised similar concerns in public comments to EPA and the SAP (see comments here).

The chemical industry and EPA political appointees are hoping to eliminate the tenfold uncertainty factor intended to protect children from pesticides. This “kids safety factor” was added to the law in response to a landmark 1993 National Academy of Sciences study that found children are often more vulnerable and more exposed to pesticides than adults. However, it looks unlikely that they will find the support they are hoping for from the SAP, whose members repeatedly emphasized in this week’s meeting that the cellular tests are only based on adult cells (from humans and rodents) instead of the early life stages of fetal and childhood brain development that are known to be most sensitive to chlorpyrifos.

Not only is the Trump EPA waging an assault on science, but this decision to finally release a new risk assessment for chlorpyrifos also looks like the agency’s latest move in a long series of attempts to avoid a court order to finalize a ban. In 2015 and again in 2016, EPA career experts developed detailed peer-reviewed scientific analyses concluding that continued use of chlorpyrifos poses an unreasonable threat to babies, children, and pregnant women and the agency proposed to ban the chemical from use on food crops. But when President Trump took office, his administration reversed course. NRDC and our partners, represented by Earthjustice, have repeatedly sought court orders requiring the Agency to ban chlorpyrifos, but through additional maneuvering, EPA has constantly sought to push the deadline back. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard arguments in our latest challenge to EPA’s inaction on chlorpyrifos in July 2020, and a decision could come at any moment (see Earthjustice timeline of legal actions).

The Trump EPA’s release of a risk assessment that is less protective of public health at this late date is another attempt to restart the clock—and trade short-term favors to industry for the long-term health of our nation’s children.

About the Authors

Erik D. Olson

Senior Strategic Director, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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