Meet “chlorpyrifos,” the insecticide that federal scientists say could potentially harm children and farm workers.
The Obama administration had proposed a ban on the chemical after the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that exposure to chlorpyrifos might cause significant human health consequences, such as impaired brain function. But Dow Jones, which makes the product, said the science was inconclusive.
As the EPA’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt had a choice: side with this agency’s own chemical safety experts, or pick the giant chemical manufacturer and drop the case. This week, he chose Dow.
On Wednesday, Pruitt rejected a petition filed by two national environmental groups, which asked the EPA to ban all uses of chlorpyrifos over health and safety fears. He cited the need for “regulatory certainty” and “sound science in decision-making.”
His decision reverses the Obama administration’s finding that this 52-year-old insecticide is potentially too risky to keep spraying on our crops.
Scientists at the EPA reached this conclusion last year after extensively reviewing studies that pointed to the chemical’s potential health problems, including learning and memory declines in people who are exposed through drinking water and other sources. One of the studies, by Columbia University researchers, found that children exposed to effects of chlorpyrifos in the womb had persistent “disturbances” in their brains throughout childhood.
The environmental agency had already banned the insecticide for most household settings in 2000. Scientists determined the chemical — used in common products like Raid sprays and Black Flag ant killer — posed an “unacceptable” health risk, particularly to children.
But chlorpyrifos remained relatively common for agricultural use. About 40,000 farms in the U.S. use the chemical on about 50 different crops, including corn, wheat, strawberries and broccoli.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pesticide Action Network had petitioned the EPA in 2007 to ban food uses of chlorpyrifos. Later, they sued the agency to compel a ruling on their petition. After the Obama administration proposed a ban in 2015, a court order compelled the agency to issue a final rule by the end of March.
That forced Pruitt to make a decision early into his tenure as EPA administrator. In his decision, Pruitt disputed the EPA’s methods and questioned the validity of studies used to support the proposed ban.
Dow Agrosciences, the division that sells chlorpyrifos, praised Pruitt for rejecting the environmental groups’ petition.
“This is the right decision for farmers who, in about 100 countries, rely on the effectiveness of chlorpyrifos to protect more than 50 crops,” the company said in a statement, adding that it “remains confident that authorized uses of chlorpyrifos products offer wide margins of protection for human health and safety.”
Chemical safety advocates, meanwhile, accused Pruitt of putting corporate profits above human health.
“We’re seeing what happens when President Trump gives an unqualified political hatchet man license to disregard reams of evidence from dedicated scientists,” Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement.
A former EPA scientist offered a more tempered, though no less disappointed, response.
“They are ignoring the science that is pretty solid,” Jim Jones, who was assistant administrator of the EPA and responsible for pesticide regulation before he left the agency in January, told the New York Times.