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child eating corn

The pesticide chlorpyrifos is commonly applied to various crops including corn across the United States despite its threat to child development. (Photo: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

As EPA Forced to Finalize New Rules, Report Details Widespread Use of Neurotoxic Pesticide Across US

"For years, the EPA has avoided protecting children from learning disabilities and has kept chlorpyrifos on the market, in our food, and in our water."

Jessica Corbett

Two decades after the Environmental Protection Agency ended household use of chlorpyrifos over concerns about its impact on the brains of children, the neurotoxic pesticide is still widely applied to crops across the United States, according to a report published Wednesday.

"The review of these data shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that people, most alarmingly young children, are being exposed to unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos in their food and water."
—Rashmi Joglekar, Earthjustice

The public interest law firm Earthjustice released the report—entitled Poisoned Food, Poison Brains: Mapping dangerous pesticides in the foods we eat (pdf)—just weeks before the EPA is set to announce new restrictions on chlorpyrifos.

Earthjustice, along with farmworker and public health groups, has pressured the EPA to ban chlorpyrifos through legal action. In what the group hailed as a huge victory, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in April ordered the agency to ban all food uses of the pesticide or retain only those that are safe for workers and children. The EPA's deadline to unveil its rule is August 20.

Studies have connected chlorpyrifos exposure with permanent harms to the brains of children, including attention problems, developmental delays, and intelligence loss. It is commonly used on broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cranberries, corn, fruit and nut trees, soybeans, and other row crops as well as on fence posts, green houses, golf courses, turf, and utility poles.

For the new report, Earthjustice reviewed data on agricultural pesticide use and human health risks from the EPA and the United States Geological Survey. The group found that 5.6 million pounds of chlorpyrifos was applied on agricultural land nationwide in 2017, with the most usage documented in California, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Kansas.

According to Earthjustice:

Anyone living near where chlorpyrifos is used can be exposed to unsafe levels through air (drift) or drinking water, according to government studies, which note that food is a method of exposure too. Government reports show that farmworkers and people who live, work, or go to school near agricultural fields where chlorpyrifos is used experience dangerously high levels of exposure and are at elevated risk of harm.

"Children between one and two years old are most at risk of harm from chlorpyrifos, as they face dietary exposures of more than 140 times EPA's so-called level of concern," the report says.

"In its 2016 Refined Drinking Water Assessment, which is the only such assessment that attempted to find a chlorpyrifos exposure level that would be safe for children, EPA said drinking water across the nation is likely contaminated with unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos," Earthjustice notes. "EPA's high end estimates indicate that in the most contaminated areas, chlorpyrifos contamination may be 12,000 higher than levels of concern."

Rashmi Joglekar, Earthjustice staff scientist for Healthy Communities, said in a statement that "the review of these data shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that people, most alarmingly young children, are being exposed to unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos in their food and water."

"The EPA has had the scientific evidence for years that chlorpyrifos can lead to irreversible neurodevelopmental harm in children," Joglekar added, "and the agency's only ethical choice is to ban the pesticide for all food uses immediately."

In a June report for The Intercept, Sharon Lerner pointed to an old study on chlorpyrifos commissioned by Dow Chemical—now Corteva Agriscience—and for a time used by federal regulators as "just one of many instances in which an industry that is far more powerful and better resourced than the federal agency responsible for regulating it has hoodwinked, bullied, and persuaded the EPA into using inaccurate science at the expense of public health."

Noting Lerner's reporting, Earthjustice warns that major chemical companies continue to manufacture and sell millions of pounds of chlorpyrifos each year, and "these lobbying maneuvers are most likely ongoing as the August deadline looms."

Patti Goldman, the Earthjustice attorney who has been leading the chlorpyrifos litigation, called out the EPA on Wednesday for its failure to act sooner on calls to fully ban the pesticide.

"For years, the EPA has avoided protecting children from learning disabilities and has kept chlorpyrifos on the market, in our food, and in our water," Goldman said. "The court has told the EPA, yet again, to ban the pesticide. It's time for EPA to stop succumbing to industry pressure and start protecting children, farmworkers, and their families."

As Earthjustice's report puts it: "Just as science led EPA to say chlorpyrifos is too toxic for our homes 20 years ago, so too science is telling the agency this pesticide is too toxic for our food."

"Indeed, following the science leads inevitably to the conclusion that the only acceptable way to keep children and workers safe from chlorpyrifos is to ban it, once and for all," the report concludes, "and start taking a hard look at the whole class of organophosphates."

The data Earthjustice analyzed contained information on not only chlorpyrifos but also 16 other organophosphates that are widely used or have known harmful health effects—so alongside the new report, the group on Wednesday unveiled a searchable online database.


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