Commentary: Federal foot-dragging must end on dangerous pesticide

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Amid mounting pressure and health concerns, the EPA needs to ban chlorpyrifos from our farms to protect consumers, farmworkers

January 4, 2016

By Wendy Hessler
Environmental Health News

After almost a decade of prodding from environmental groups, a number of missed deadlines and a push from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promises to decide this year if the organophosphate pesticide chlorpyrifos will remain on the market for use on food crops. The agency’s proposal to make a final rule by December is a step in the right direction, but the protracted wait for a final decision is frustrating to many who support the ban.

The EPA should follow through on its proposed ruling and cancel all food uses to reduce exposures and prevent more harm to those who are most vulnerable – pregnant women, developing fetuses, newborns and children.

The EPA is proposing to ban all agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos because it cannot determine if combined exposures from food and water meet safety standards set under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The EPA registers pesticides for certain uses and may revoke or ban them if it finds “reasonable certainty” that exposure from multiple sources may cause harm.

Until a ban is in place, the pesticide will continue to be used to control insects on a variety of food crops such as corn, soybeans, fruit trees and broccoli. Its nonfood use on golf courses, greenhouses and telephone poles will continue even if food uses are revoked.

Pregnant women, children, and farmworkers remain the most vulnerable to health effects from the widely used pesticide. Chlorpyrifos is a well-known developmental neurotoxicant and an endocrine disruptor, as it can alter hormone levels and function. Prenatal and early life exposure interferes with brain and nerve cell development in ways that permanently harm developing brains.

Chlorpyrifos is a well-known developmental neurotoxicant and an endocrine disruptor, as it can alter hormone levels and function. Human and animal studies report cognitive, motor skill and behavior effects that include reduced birth weights, delays in motor development, lowered IQs, memory problems and attention deficits.

Chlorpyrifos was first used in 1965. Through the years, the EPA has slowly whittled away its registered uses. Since 2000, the EPA has eliminated residential use of chlorpyrifos and curtailed its application on some fruits and tree crops. The EPA became concerned about combined exposures from food and drinking water in 2006.

Then environmental groups petitioned EPA through the courts to conduct an overdue human health risk assessment and take steps to further limit the pesticide’s use. Nine years of missed deadlines and judicial back and forths followed before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in August ordered the agency to respond to the petition, saying “EPA’s ambiguous plan to possibly issue a proposed rule nearly nine years after receiving the administrative petition is too little, too late. This delay is egregious and warrants mandamus relief. We order EPA to issue a full and final response to the petition no later than October 31, 2015.”

Even though the EPA responded and proposed to make a final decision by the end of 2016, more delays seem inevitable. The agency is still evaluating the human risk assessment that was released last year, and it plans to issue a drinking water analysis and a hazard determination in the next several months.

Given the pesticide's well-documented health effects and EPA’s own concern over combined food and drinking water exposures, the time has come for EPA to deem the pesticide unsafe, ban its use on food crops, and reduce exposures and associated health impacts on children, farmworkers, rural residents and consumers.

Your support of a ban can make that happen. Public comments supporting the ban can be submitted until January 5 on the EPA docket here.

Wendy Hessler is an independent science communicator, 2015 fellow at Reach the Decision Makers Fellowship and formerly managed the Science Communication Fellows program for Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of Environmental Health News.

EHN welcomes republication of our stories, but we require that publications include the author's name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN's version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at


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