Why We Should All Be Watching the 9th Circuit’s Petition of the EPA

Photo: Virginia Gewin/Civil Eats

Almost three years ago, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that the negative health consequences of the pesticide chlorpyrifos were so damaging, that there are no safe uses of the chemical, and recommended a ban on the substance. But odds are that right now, wherever you are, wherever you’re reading this, the pesticide is nearby. In fact, if today you ate fruits or vegetables grown in the US, it’s likely that you ate the residues. Each year over six million pounds of chlorpyrifos are applied to a myriad of agricultural crops in the US, ranging from walnuts to broccoli to Christmas trees, as well as landscaping like roadway medians and golf courses. But its ubiquitousness in conventional agriculture means that residents of California, especially the Central Valley, face even more exposure than the rest of the nation.

Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate chemical, meaning it is literally derived from the nerve gas used in Nazi Germany, and now used to kill bugs. Chlorpyrifos reacts in human bodies the same way it kills insects – by attacking the brain and nervous system, which makes it extremely dangerous for developing brains, i.e. children. While extreme, high dose poisonings can cause death and paralysis, the biggest, stealthy threat of chlorpyrifos is chronic exposure to children and expecting mothers. Recent studies reveal extreme adverse effects on motor function and neurological development in children and babies with prenatal exposure.

While any layperson is subject to eating residues of chlorpyrifos on food, chronic exposure is usually a result of regularly breathing in the chemical’s drift. Chlorpyrifos is sprayed directly on target crops, but drifting particles customarily reach a 300-foot radius of the application zone. This disproportionately impacts farmworkers and their families in rural California, which are predominantly Latinx communities. The recreational spaces, homes, and schools of these communities are usually within the “splash zone” of chemical spray, meaning that in these areas, the mere act of attending class or playing outside systematically exposes children to chlorpyrifos. Moreover, because it is used in the workplace and affects specific neighborhoods, chlorpyrifos exposures represent a larger system that endangers communities who do not have the privilege to remove themselves from the hazard. While anybody who eats food in the US is impacted by the prevalence of chlorpyrifos, its use disproportionately affects low-income people of color and is a clear case of environmental racism.

Since the registration of chlorpyrifos in 1965, restrictions have been gradually strengthened as new studies revealed these adverse health implications. While protections slowly tightened to protect the general public, such as removing the chemical from household bug spray, the disempowered communities on the forefront, people without political clout and silenced voices, continue to face daily exposure and health consequences. Various political and corporate actors use their power and status to protect themselves and push their own agendas. They actively seek to delay the ban of this chemical, despite huge advances in the scientific community’s understanding of how dangerous it really is to the public.

Based on a re-evaluation of the risks and detrimental consequences of chlorpyrifos, the EPA announced in 2016 that there is no safe or appropriate use of the chemical. In response, the Obama Administration started writing a ban. But when Scott Pruitt, appointed by Donald Trump, took over in 2017, the EPA scrapped the developing legislation and stopped the ban. Not coincidentally, this action followed a $1 million donation from the Dow Chemical Company, a major producer of chlorpyrifos, to the Trump Inauguration. As the developing policy screeched to a halt, protests broke out in Sacramento and across California’s agricultural hubs where the pesticide is prevalent. In August 2018 environmental and farm groups sued the EPA in the 9th Circuit, which found in a 2-1 decision that the EPA be required to ban the substance. The agency appealed, and now final hearings on whether or not the agency be required to ban the chemical will occur on March 25th.

There is no doubt that this chemical is dangerous; science demonstrates that it threatens children and its use systematically threatens communities of color, but we live in an age when partisanship and corporate money can prevent agencies from doing their intended jobs–protecting public health. Not only should chlorpyrifos be banned, but all Americans should be concerned that our system of chemical regulation is fundamentally broken. The upcoming hearings will be an important decision about environmental justice, and determine whether our national agencies are too entrenched in corporate ties to prioritize national public health.

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