In March of 2017, the then-chief of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, signed an order to allow chlorpyrifos (CPF) to continue to be widely used in US agriculture, despite the recommendation of EPA scientists to ban the substance.
But on August 9, 2018, a federal court ruled that the EPA must move forward with the ban it had originally proposed in 2015. The US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled two-to-one that the EPA had no defense for its decision to delay banning chlorpyrifos and had acted in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which requires the EPA to ban chemicals proven to be dangerous from being used on food.
CPFs are a type of organophosphate insecticide used on crops since the 1960s. The chemical has been widely accused of causing harm to humans, including developmental delays and low IQs in children. Studies have linked in utero exposure to the pesticide to low birth weight, attention disorders, and autism.
These potential health risks prompted the EPA’s proposed ban, but Pruitt reversed plans to ban the chemical saying that the studies showing its dangers were not conclusive enough. In July of 2018, Pruitt resigned from his position as chief of the EPA under a growing cloud of ethical controversies and investigations.
Use of CPFs was banned for in-home use in the US in 2000, and the pesticide is still used on thousands of US farms.
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Multiple studies have found that exposure to chlorpyrifos, as well as organophosphates in general, have been linked to reduction in memory and IQ in children exposed to the chemicals while in the womb.
Nathan Donley, scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a 2016 letter urging the EPA to ban the chemicals that, “These pesticides [organophosphates] pose unacceptably high risks to children, workers and wildlife, and really can’t be used safely.” The letter also noted the toxicity of organophosphates to birds and amphibians.
A study published in October 2018 in PLOS Medicine calls for a global phase-out of all organophosphates, including CPFs, stating that there is compelling evidence that even low levels of prenatal exposure puts children at risk for neurodegenerative disorders. The study also notes, disturbingly, that organophosphates were first developed as human nerve gas agents during the 1930s and 1940s and only later adapted for use as a pesticide.
Organophosphates, including CPFs, work by damaging acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme necessary for controlling nerve signals. After a crop is sprayed, organophasphates may be present in the soil, surface waters, or the surface of the affected plants.
People may be exposed by ingesting or breathing organophashates or by getting the chemical on eyes or skin or touching contaminated water or soil. Immediate symptoms of poisoning include headache, dizziness, weakness, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and salivation. More severe symptoms include seizures, difficulty breathing, and coma. Those who work in agriculture or live in agricultural areas where the chemicals are used are at greater risk.
The US ban on CPFs will move forward, but will not affect Hawaii, as that state already unanimously approved banning CPFs in June of 2018.Whizzco