If you have never heard of the pesticide chlorpyrifos (pronounced klor-peer-a-foss), sold under the name Lorsban, Dursban and others, you might want to learn more about what foods it gets sprayed on so that you can avoid exposure to it. It appears that despite the gallant efforts of many to remove this toxic pesticide from use, it will continue to be used for the foreseeable future on approximately 50 crops thanks to a series of events that display the worst side of the political and agribusiness friendships that occur in Washington D.C.
Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate pesticide like ones developed by the Nazi’s during WW II. Patented by Dow Chemical company in 1963. Organophosphates interact with cholinesterase, an enzyme that aids in the production of an important neurotransmitter in animals. In other words, it’s a nerve agent that paralyzes insects and for a half a century, staple foods in the U.S., such as corn, wheat, apples, peaches, lettuce potatoes, almonds, and citrus, have been sprayed with chlorpyrifos. Consequently, because it affects the nervous system, chlorpyrifos has been shown to cause harm to the brain and cause neurodevelopmental problems in children. Lower birth weight, reduced IQ, loss of working memory, attention disorders, and delayed motor development, autism spectrum disorders, convulsions, respiratory problems and even death have been linked to its use. In farming communities almost 90% of pregnant mothers show elevated chlorpyrifos levels in their bodies.
In 1996 congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act and it directed the E.P.A. to look at the way children are exposed to pesticides and to protect children with a very strong standard – that the E.P.A. find the pesticide safe before it could be used on our food. The E.P.A. was aware of the dangers of chlorpyrifos since 1995 when they fined DowElanco 875,000 dollars for violating a federal law requiring it to report human health problems from chlorpyrifos. The E.P.A. also made decisions on chlorpyrifos in 2000 (to ban it for household use) and 2006 without banning the pesticide completely despite scientific studies showing dangerous results to children exposed in utero. As a result, groups represented by Earth Justice sued the government and the courts ruled that the E.P.A. needed to act by October 31st, 2015 to address the obvious dangers of chlorpyrifos. At that time the E.P.A. agreed to ban chlorpyrifos across the board and it was to take effect in early 2017.
The E.P.A. at that time decided that:
*All food exposures exceed safe levels, with children ages 1-2 exposed to levels of chlorpyrifos that are 140 times what the EPA deems safe.
*There is no safe level of chlorpyrifos in drinking water.
*Pesticide drift still reaches unsafe levels at 300 feet from the field’s edge.
*Chlorpyrifos is found at unsafe levels in the air at schools, homes and communities in agricultural areas.
*The EPA’s own calculations suggest that babies, children and pregnant women all eat much more chlorpyrifos than is safe. For toddlers and older children, exposure is 11-15 times what is considered safe and for pregnant women, 5 times higher than necessary to protect the developing fetus.
*All workers who mix and apply chlorpyrifos are exposed to unsafe levels of the pesticide even with the maximum personal protective equipment and engineering controls.
*Field workers could re-enter fields within 1-5 days after pesticide spraying, but unsafe exposures occur up to 18 days after applications.
Farmworkers and people living in agricultural communities, particularly children, are disproportionately affected by this toxic pesticide. In addition to food exposures, they are more likely to have contaminated drinking water, and they are, quite literally, getting hit from all sides by drift exposures at school, daycare, on the playground, at work, and in their homes.
In the fall of 2016, after President Trump was elected, the E.P.A. decided to delay the ban indefinitely claiming it was going to study the science again. This action brought the environmental group Earthjustice back (who represents several groups affected by the pesticide) back to court and in August of 2018 the courts ruled that the E.P.A. needed to ban chlorpyrifos in six days. Still the E.P.A. refused. Why did the Trump administrations E.P.A. fight the ban of chlorpyrifos? We now know that Dow Chemical’s chairman Andrew Liveris gave 1 million dollars to fund President Trump’s inaugural activities and he was appointed by Trump to head up the now disbanded American Manufacturing Council. Dow also spent more than 13.6 million on lobbying in 2016 and spent 5.2 million in the first quarter of 2017 advocating with the EPA, the White House, and both chambers of Congress for a variety of policies, including chlorpyrifos’ regulatory status.
Simply put, the head of the EPA flagrantly ignored the decades of scientific studies showing the dangers of chlorpyrifos and made the profits of a friendly corporation more important than the people that they are supposed to protect.
Scott Pruitt the former head of the E.P.A. who resigned amid a cloud of ethics scandals also ignored the urging of the American Academy of Pediatrics to proceed with the ban. Pruitt ignored the advice of 60,000 doctors and was replaced by Andrew Wheeler who continued the stance of ignoring the courts demand for banning this pesticide.
Patti Goldman the lead lawyer for Earthjustice who is representing farmworker organizations and others against Dow has said that they will sue again and ask the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to expedite the case. In the meantime, Hawaii has banned chlorpyrifos and now California and New York are considering doing the same. Hopefully justice will soon prevail but all of us should be aware that many foods are still being sprayed with this toxic pesticide so buying organic is going to be a better option, as it has always been.