Big Court Win For Public Health: Pesticide Dichlorvos Is Bad For Children's Health

After a long fight, the end is near for one of the nastiest pesticides still on the market: dichlorvos.  This chemical was developed from nerve warfare agents after World War II, and has been used in the United States to kill insects in homes, restaurants, theaters, and farm buildings since 1948.  If that sounds like a bad idea, it is.  Dichlorvos interferes with the human nervous system and can cause severe problems, ranging from vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, and muscle twitching to seizures, loss of consciousness, and death. 

The EPA, whose job it is to ensure pesticide safety, has expressed serious concerns about dichlorvos for decades, but never took the steps necessary to protect the public.  NRDC petitioned EPA to ban the chemical in 2006, but EPA denied our request.  To justify keeping dichlorvos on the market, EPA relied on a human experiment, paid for by the chemical’s manufacturer, in which six white male volunteers were paid to ingest the pesticide for three weeks to see what happened.

There was one big problem with this (apart from the deplorable nature of paying human guinea pigs to drink a neurotoxic pesticide):  the study was conducted on adult males only, and therefore couldn’t provide any information on how harmful this pesticide is for infants and children.  Children are not just “little adults” – their brains and bodies are still developing, and children can be permanently damaged by exposure to pesticides at levels that wouldn’t harm adults.  As a result, Congress directed EPA to include a “safety factor” of ten when determining the safe level of children’s exposure to a pesticide, unless other information proves that the pesticide is safe.  In other words, EPA must assume that children are ten times more sensitive to pesticide exposure than adults. 

In approving dichlorvos, EPA not only relied on this unethical human study, it refused to apply the children’s safety factor Congress required.  So we sued.  And last Friday, we won.  In a 34-page decision, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York held that EPA unlawfully abandoned the children’s safety factor and explicitly rejected EPA’s use of the industry human study.  The court sent the matter back to the agency to explain how such a study could prove safety for children.  This is a huge win for children’s health.

What’s next?  We think EPA needs to quickly take dichlorvos off store shelves.  Decades of research – and EPA’s own findings – show that this chemical is unsafe, especially for kids.  And there are lots of new and safer pesticides that have come on the market since this dinosaur was first approved back in the 1940s.  After a long and sordid history, one of the worst pesticides still around finally looks to be on the way out. Good Riddance.

About the Authors

Mae Wu

Senior Attorney, Health program

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