EPA Regulatory Safeguards Prevent Pesticide Poisonings

In accordance with a new Trump White House Executive Order, E.O. 13,777, the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pesticides is asking the public - including the regulated pesticide manufacturing industry—for suggestions on regulatory actions that may be appropriate for repeal, replacement or modification. The false premise of the E.O. is that environmental protections in the form of rules and regulations are somehow holding back the nation—they are not!

The reality is that the safeguards that the Office of Pesticides must provide for the public are vital to the health and safety of children and future generations, and good for business and the US economy.

One important example of a critical health-protective safeguard that the Pesticide Office implements is the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), a bipartisan law  that passed Congress unanimously in 1996. It was the first environmental law that required pesticide regulations to include specific protections for the health of infants and children.

FQPA had several unique and forward-thinking provisions such as considering the aggregate of all routes of exposure to each pesticide including exposure from food, drinking water, home and garden uses, and other non-occupational sources of exposure. In addition, under FQPA pesticide assessments must also consider the cumulative toxic impacts from exposure to all pesticides that share the same mechanism of toxic action in humans.

As a result of requirements under FQPA, the nation’s use of pesticides has moved away from some of the most dangerous ones, especially the organophosphate class of insecticides (OPs).

Photo credit: Maria

Organophosphate pesticides are neurotoxic—that’s how they work to kill insects and other intended targets, and that’s also why they are harmful to people and non-target wildlife. When inhaled, they may cause acute illness. Signs of poisoning may include runny nose, coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Skin contact can cause swelling at the sight of contact and involuntary muscle contractions. Getting OPs in the eyes can cause stinging, tearing, and blurred vision. Within minutes or hours of these types of exposures, the pesticide can cause systemic effects, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, muscle weakness or twitching, and slurred speech. At doses far below those that trigger acute poisoning, OPs have been linked to long-term neurodevelopmental abnormalities in children exposed prenatally, making it especially threatening for pregnant women, infants and young children (see Project TENDR scientific statement on OP's).  

EPA actions to protect children from harmful pesticides is good for health and good for business. A 2015 European Union study reported that the costs associated with lost IQ points and intellectual disability arising from only two categories of chemicals—polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants (PBDEs) and organophosphate (OP) pesticides—are estimated at 155.44 billion euros ($169.43 billion dollars) annually (Bellanger et al. 2015).

For one member of the class of OP pesticides, chlorpyrifos, also known as Lorsban™ or Dursban™, scientists have shown that it interferes with brain development, resulting in poor working memory and reduced IQ in developmentally-exposed children. For these reasons, all home uses of chlorpyrifos were all cancelled in 2001, resulting in a reduction of over 6 million pounds annually from people’s homes. EPA’s protective actions resulted in a 66% reduction in poisonings since 1995, demonstrating the importance of regulatory safeguards for keeping our loved ones safe (see EPA presentation to the Pesticide Programs Dialogue Committee, November 2006). 

Photo credit: Eboni

Although chlorpyrifos is no longer legal for home use, approximately 6 million pounds are still used annually on corn, in orchards, and on other vegetable row crops. It contaminates our food, drinking water, and drifts into rural school yards and homes.  Chlorpyrifos is still responsible for a substantial number of worker poisonings each year.  Although government biomonitoring data indicates that the levels of chlorpyrifos in human urine has been reduced to half the amounts pre-cancellation, still its breakdown products have been detected in the bodies of three-quarters of the US population.

Moreover, federal scientific experts report that chlorpyrifos and other OP pesticides still in use on crops are harmful to almost 1,800 “critically threatened or endangered species” (see Vanity Fair, April 20, 2017) making it a threat to wildlife and ecosystems.

Over 60 scientists and medical professionals wrote in a 2016 letter to EPA, the impacts of chlorpyrifos on children raise serious concerns:

“Chlorpyrifos is a powerful developmental neurotoxicant. Exposures to even very low doses of chlorpyrifos during critical windows of exquisite vulnerability during the nine months of pregnancy and in early postnatal life can cause brain damage to children that is characterized by diminished cognitive ability (lowered IQ), problems with working memory, delays in motor development and disruptions of primitive reflexes. It should be noted that working memory skills in the early elementary school years are a strong predictor of learning outcomes and academic achievement in later years ... These disruptions in children’s brain development appear to be permanent, irreversible and lifelong."

Under the Obama administration, EPA developed a rule in 2015 and re-affirmed its decision in 2016 to ban the remaining food uses of this highly neurotoxic insecticide based on extreme health risks, including brain damage to fetuses and children.

Unfortunately, political pressure from the White House and Dow Chemical, which donated $1 Million to President Trump and whose CEO, Andrew Liveris, is the White House pick to head up the American Manufacturing Council, appears to have dodged a cancellation. Instead of enforcing legally mandated safeguards, the #PruittPollutes EPA will allow this dangerous pesticide to continue to harm American children.

In conclusion, the work of OPP and EPA is vital to the health and safety of all people, particularly children. What’s more, the work of this office is far from finished. We need EPA to be able to continue to implement critical safeguards that make our food safe, and keep our families healthy. Instead of distracting the EPA with requests to slash protections, EPA must continue to implement more common sense safeguards that protect children and future generations.

EPA and must not give in to agrochemical industry demands and abandon its mission to protect human health and wildlife. We need more safeguards, not fewer and reject the notion that EPA should be using its time and resources to remove protections rather than implement them.

Let the White House know that you support Environmental Heath safeguards, by commenting on E.O.13777 until May 15th, 2017 in Docket EPA-HQ-OA-2017-0190 at www.regulations.gov

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Health program

Join Us