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'Huge Victory': Federal Appeals Court Orders EPA to Ban All Food Uses of Toxic Pesticide Chlorpyrifos

"EPA's time is now up," said the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which sued the agency on behalf of labor and public health groups.

Farmworkers tend to strawberries growing in a field on February 10, 2021 in Ventura County, California. (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

Farmworkers tend to strawberries growing in a field on February 10, 2021 in Ventura County, California. (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

The environmental law organization Earthjustice celebrated a "huge victory" for farmworkers and children on Thursday after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to ban all food uses of a toxic pesticide linked to memory loss and developmental harms.

The EPA was given 60 days (pdf) to revoke all food uses of chlorpyrifos and retain only those that are found to have no effects on people's health. 

"This ruling is a huge victory for children and communities across the country who will finally be spared by needless poisonings and lifelong learning disabilities," said Earthjustice in a statement.

Representing labor groups including United Farm Workers and public health organizations including the Learning Disability Association of America, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the EPA after the agency refused to ban chlorpyrifos in 2019 and in 2016 under the Trump administration. 

The Obama administration had been working to ban the pesticide before former president Donald Trump took office in 2016, and environmental groups have been calling for an end to all food uses for the chemical for decades.

"We have been working for years to make this happen," Earthjustice tweeted Thursday.

Numerous scientific studies have found that exposure to organophosphate pesticides, the class of chemicals that includes chlorpyrifos, is linked to attention deficit disorders, autism spectrum disorders, hand tremors, and other symptoms in children. 

Organophosphates—which also include sarin nerve gas—were originally developed by the Nazis for chemical warfare but were later adopted for agricultural uses. 

Chlorpyrifos was banned for household use in 2001, but is still used widely to grow strawberries, apples, citrus, broccoli, corn, and other fruits and vegetables—putting farmworkers and rural communities most at risk for exposure but also affecting children's long-term health through exposures in food and drinking water.

"The court got it right: EPA's time is now up. EPA must now follow the law, ban chlorpyrifos, and protect children and farmworkers from a pesticide we know is linked to numerous developmental harms."
—Patti Goldman, Earthjustice

The court condemned the EPA's "egregious delay" in banning the agricultural use of the chemical and accused the agency of exposing "a generation of American children to unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos."

"By remanding back to the EPA one last time, rather than compelling the immediate revocation of all chlorpyrifos tolerances, the court is itself being more than tolerant. But the EPA's time is now up," the ruling stated.

Earthjustice called on the EPA to put the ban into effect immediately.

"The court got it right: EPA's time is now up," said Patti Goldman, managing attorney at Earthjustice. "EPA must now follow the law, ban chlorpyrifos, and protect children and farmworkers from a pesticide we know is linked to numerous developmental harms. It would be unconscionable for EPA to expose children to this pesticide for any longer."

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit denounced the agency for failing to take action without legal intervention.

"Today the court has affirmed what scientists have known for decades: chlorpyrifos is much too dangerous to be using, and EPA's lack of action has put children, farmworkers and rural communities at risk," Kristin Schafer, executive director at Pesticide Action Network (PAN), said. "Sadly, it takes legal action to force our public agencies to do their job."

"We are gratified by the court's decision in this case, yet, outraged that the EPA has dragged this out for four years after their 2015 decision based on sound science to ban all food uses of chlorpyrifos," said Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida. "It is unconscionable that it has taken so long to provide equal protection to these beautiful, yet vulnerable children in our agricultural communities. EPA must act immediately to comply with the court's decision. This is about health justice and a human right to a healthy workplace."  

Earthjustice noted that chlorpyrifos is just one of dozens of organophosphates used on produce at farms across the country.

"While we celebrate this win today, EPA must also ban all organophosphates to fully protect public health," said Goldman.

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