CA Chlorpyrifos Announcement Leaves Communities at Risk

On Friday, California’s Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) made big promises to address the risk from the pesticide chlorpyrifos—found to threaten children’s health, especially in agricultural communities—but delivered little in the way of real protections. The state claimed to be announcing “health protections” but the reality is communities are unlikely to see improvements before January 2019, at the earliest. And, instead of showing California’s leadership in science and innovation, the state’s “updated” risk assessment ignores the findings from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2016 risk assessment—instead relying on data from back in 2014.

This means that state will allow way more contamination in California’s communities than the level US EPA determined is dangerous to children. US EPA’s 2016 assessment said that regularly breathing levels of chlorpyrifos higher than 2.1 ng/m3 was dangerous for pregnant women and no use of chlorpyrifos should be allowed that would result in these elevated exposures. The Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) wants to allow thousands of times more chlorpyrifos in the air—saying only levels above 61,500 ng/m3 are risky.

Chlorpyrifos (say “klor-PEER-a-foss”) damages the developing brains of children and has been shown to significantly increase the risk of learning disabilities. Yet the Trump administration refuses to finalize a ban that has been recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own scientists. With the federal EPA making decisions that benefit chemical companies over children, California’s agricultural communities and farmworkers have been looking to Governor Brown to step-in and deliver the protections denied them by the new administration.

It’s especially critical here because California is the nation’s biggest user of chlorpyrifos (using on average a little more than 1 million pounds per year) leading to contaminated air, water, food and homes—putting the health of pregnant women, children, and farmworkers at risk. Unfortunately, California’s announcement falls far short of what’s necessary to protect people’s health. For one, despite having the authority to stop the drift of this pesticide into homes and schools, CalEPA is not setting mandatory restrictions which will get chlorpyrifos out of the fields for good.

Instead the promised “interim mitigation measures”, which are to be released next month, are actually “recommendations”—not requirements. That means there’s nothing legally changing whether or how chlorpyrifos is used in the fields—and the current, dangerous practice of applying it right next to homes and schools can continue. It will be left up to each County Agricultural Commissioner to voluntarily decide whether or not to follow any of the state’s new recommendations. That means we can expect patchwork improvements, at best, and there’s the distinct possibility that communities that need it most will get nothing.

Thankfully, Friday’s announcement includes additional scientific review outside the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR)—which is refusing to address the science that ties low-levels of exposure to chlorpyrifos to permanent damage to the developing brain. Based on this science, US EPA found that chlorpyrifos was contaminating the air in California’s communities and poisoning the food supply. In Friday’s memo, DPR erroneously states that USEPA’s assessment was a “draft” and not finalized. This is just one of a long list of DPR’s errors that the Scientific Review Panel (SRP) must correct to get California back on track.  However, for communities with unsafe air, the estimated completion date of the SRP review (which is optimistic) of December next year (2018) is a long time to wait.

CalEPA’s announcement shows that, at long last, California is paying attention (finally!) to residents concerned about this toxic pesticide—but they’ve responded with a false promise of protections for communities that pay a steep price for the fruits, vegetables and nuts Americans eat nationwide. “Recommendations” are not enough when the science supports a ban. CalEPA must make good on the promise of health protections by: (1) setting clear deadlines to keep the scientific review process on track, (2) protecting the most vulnerable—the risk assessment must evaluate risk to the developing brain, (3) providing near term relief to every community through mandatory restrictions and (4) banning chlorpyrifos from California’s fields.

California must do better than this. The health of its children depend on it.

About the Authors

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

Senior Scientist, Health and Environment program

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