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The “Outdated Pesticide” Chlorpyrifos Is Linked to a Range of Health Issues. Why Isn’t It Banned?

Web ExclusiveJuly 22, 2019
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An extended conversation with Patti Goldman of Earthjustice about the Environment Protection Agency’s decision not to ban the powerful pesticide chlorpyrifos. Although no longer available for household use, chlorpyrifos is still used by farmers on more than 50 fruit, nuts, cereal and vegetable crops. The EPA’s own research shows that it can cause brain damage in children even at small doses. “It’s an outdated pesticide that hits anything with a nervous system,” says Goldman.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation about the latest news out of the Environmental Protection Agency, that it has decided not to ban the widely used pesticide chlorpyrifos, even though the EPA’s own research shows it can cause brain damage in children. The substance is sold under the commercial name Lorsban and is banned for household use, but it’s still used by farmers on more than 50 fruit, nuts, cereal and vegetable crops. The announcement Thursday came after the Obama administration said it would ban use of the toxic chemical in 2015. But the rule never took effect and was suspended under the Trump administration in 2017 by then-EPA head Scott Pruitt, who was forced out because of corruption.

This is farmworker Claudia Angulo talking to Earthjustice about how her son Isaac was affected by exposure to pesticides during her pregnancy.

CLAUDIA ANGULO: [translated] When he was born, I realized that he wasn’t like other boys. He was a baby, but he wouldn’t sleep enough. He’d do little things like always playing in the same place with the same toys, or he wouldn’t speak much. When he started kindergarten, he had an evaluation, and he was diagnosed with ADHD. Since I’m the type of person that wants to know why, I started looking around online. I started seeing articles saying pesticides are associated with illnesses in children and with children being born with these types of issues. I also asked the doctor, who told me, “Your pregnancy has a lot to do with it—what you ate, where you worked.” I asked the doctor directly, “Do you think that the type of work that I did contributed to my son being born with this condition?” And he told me, “Yes.” And they tested his saliva and cut some of his hair. Of the 10 children that they tested, three had high rates of pesticides in their bodies. But the highest of all of them was Isaac. His results showed over 50 pesticides in his body. Of all of them, the one with the highest concentration in his body was chlorpyrifos.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Patti Goldman, managing attorney at Earthjustice, represents health and labor advocates in a lawsuit against the EPA’s 2017 decision to not ban chlorpyrifos, and now the renewed decision this past Thursday. Patti, give us the chronology of how this pesticide was challenged, what happened under the Obama administration and why now it is going to be continued to be used by farmers in the country. Who makes it? Start there.

PATTI GOLDMAN: Its main manufacturer is Dow Chemical, which has spun off its pesticide business and now calls it Corteva. And as I said, this was a pesticide that was first developed as a nerve agent and then turned into a pesticide after World War II. It attacks anything with a nervous system. And we’ve known—I’ve worked on these issues for decades, and we’ve known that this class of pesticides is extremely dangerous and archaic, and needs to go.

EPA finally took action in 2000 to end the home uses, because children were too exposed. This was the first time EPA looked at children, in particular, and all the ways that children are exposed—when they crawl around on the carpet, put their hands in their mouths, hug their pets after a flea treatment. Their exposure was off the charts. But they left the agricultural uses on the market, and we’ve been trying to get those banned ever since. We filed a petition in 2007. We had to sue EPA to act on that petition. Finally, EPA proposed the ban in 2015.

And then, of course, we had a deadline that took us into the next administration. It was one of the first acts of Scott Pruitt. Even before making this decision, he met with the CEO of Dow. The CEO contributed a million dollars to President Trump’s inaugural fund. Scott Pruitt met with the agricultural trade group. And, of course, when the deadline came, he directed EPA’s staff not to finalize the ban, tear it up, essentially, and say that they wanted to study the science for five more years instead of acting to protect children.

AMY GOODMAN: You have said we should look even further back, to the beginnings of this drug. You say the roots are back in World War II. Explain.

PATTI GOLDMAN: Yes. Well, the Nazi state developed this set of chemicals to be nerve gases. Sarin gas is in this family. But after the war, they realized, well, this will attack anything with a nervous system. So, it’s very effective in treating crops and killing insects. But if it drifts, of course, it poisons people. It has the same kind of effect.

What we’ve learned, though, more recently, is that at even far lower doses than what will cause acute poisonings, it affects children’s brains. It causes permanent damage to children’s brains—two points of IQ, autism, attention deficit disorder. These are statistically correlated with this pesticide.

And EPA has found as much for 10 years. And based on those findings, it said, “We need to ban this pesticide.” And even in last Thursday’s decision, EPA said these are good studies, comprehensive studies, and they show that this pesticide causes these types of permanent damage to children’s brains. It just doesn’t want to act yet to protect children from this type of harm.

AMY GOODMAN: So, then explain what happened under Obama, why it took until 2015, and why the rule wasn’t instituted then.

PATTI GOLDMAN: Well, the Obama administration was being very methodical. I suppose they were anticipating a lawsuit by Dow if they didn’t have all their ducks in a row. They reviewed the science. They sent it to their scientific peer review body multiple times. Each time, the scientific peer review said this pesticide causes this kind of harm at very low doses. And what EPA had on the books was not protective. So, each time, they said EPA had to do more.

Finally, in 2015, EPA said, based on drinking water contamination, it would ban the pesticide. It continued to study how to protect children from this harm, and said it is unsafe in all ways that it is used. For infants ages 1 to 2 years old, children ages 1 to 2 years old, it is 140 times safe levels. It’s got to go. But the process takes time. EPA wanted additional time. Unfortunately, the court gave it to them, and that pushed the decision into the next administration. I suppose that the people that were trying to act to protect public health now regret that, but that’s where we are.

The decision Thursday gives us a green light to go back to court. And there, because we live under a rule of law, we will be able to go to judges, who will have to apply the law, and under the law, EPA cannot allow children to continue to be exposed to this pesticide. It will go. It’s just a question of how long.

AMY GOODMAN: The manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, Corteva Agriscience, said it supports the EPA’s decision, of course, and pointed to, quote, “more than 4,000 studies and reports examining the product in terms of health, safety and the environment,” they said, The company said, “Completion of Registration Review will provide needed certainty to growers who rely on chlorpyrifos and needed reassurance for the public that labelled uses will not pose unacceptable risk to public health or the environment.” This, again, the words of the manufacturer of chlorpyrifos. If you can respond, and particularly talk about the farmers that use this, the farmworkers who are exposed to this, like we just heard, like Claudia Angulo and her son Isaac?

PATTI GOLDMAN: Sure. Many of our clients are farmworkers, farmworker advocates. They are at ground zero, because they’re exposed when this pesticide drifts through the air. It has been documented to drift more than a half a mile from one crop, one place where it’s applied, to where other workers have been. It’s been found in schoolyards in toxic amounts throughout California. And it drifts to people’s homes. So they’re exposed when they’re going about their daily lives. It’s also in the drinking water and in the food, so they’ve got a triple whammy. And it’s really unfair, because they’re having to protect themselves from what they have no control over.

In terms of the farmers, they know that this pesticide is going to go. It’s an outdated pesticide that hits anything with a nervous system. There are many newer systems of pest control, and the farmers knew this was supposed to be banned by October 2017, under the proposal. They were adapting to alternatives. And they are very adaptable to alternatives. They’ve done it before.

So, it will be banned. We now have states proposing to ban this pesticide. There’s a ban adopted in Hawaii, one that is on Governor Cuomo’s desk in New York. California is starting a process. It’s inevitable. It’s just a question of how long it will take, how many children will suffer learning disabilities, before it is banned.

AMY GOODMAN: And how is it treated in the rest of the world, Patti?

PATTI GOLDMAN: Other countries are starting to ban it, as well—Australia, Canada, the U.K. They’re all starting to put additional restrictions on and ban this pesticide, as well. And more will follow. When it’s not allowed on our food, that means food that comes from other countries, as well as the food that’s grown here. So, we and our other allies that are starting to ban this pesticide are going to lead the way and protect people throughout the world from this pesticide.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, the EPA also approved broad use of the pesticide—and you can correct me if I pronounce it wrong—sulfoxaflor, known for killing bees, the crisis of the whole bee colonies in the United States. Can you explain what this is?

PATTI GOLDMAN: This is a pesticide that is—it’s applied in a different way. It doesn’t affect people, and so that’s a good thing. But it is applied to the plant, and then it stays with the plant, and the plant sort of expresses it out. So, once it’s out there, you can’t put it away. You can’t get rid of it. And, unfortunately, it hits the worker bees. It disorients them so they can’t find their way back to the hive. And it is one of the reasons we’re seeing the deaths and the collapse in the beehive, in the bee industry.

We had challenged this pesticide on behalf of beekeepers. And four years ago, the Court of Appeals in the 9th Circuit sent it back to EPA and said EPA had huge gaps of information about how this pesticide affected bees. And there was a growing body of independent scientific evidence that it was one of the culprits. So, after we won that case, EPA kept issuing emergency exemptions, and finally it just adopted all of those essentially as its new permission to use this pesticide on a wide range of crops. We’re evaluating that decision on behalf of our clients to decide whether we’ll go back to court.

AMY GOODMAN: Anything you’d like to add? And if you could end by telling us what Earthjustice is?

PATTI GOLDMAN: Sure. Earthjustice is a nonprofit organization that represents people when they need to go to court to protect health and the environment. And that’s what we do on behalf of our clients. We give voice, and we work through the law to hold our government and polluters to the law. And that’s what we are doing here. And we are going to fight to protect people from these harmful pesticides. It takes the kind of voices that we can bring, and all of our clients and allies can bring, to counter the power that the corporations have in trying to delay protections and skirt protections that affect our environment and our communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Patti Goldman, thanks so much for joining us from Seattle, Washington, managing attorney at Earthjustice. She represents health and labor advocates in a lawsuit against the EPA’s decision to not ban chlorpyrifos. On their website, Earthjustice says, “We’re here because the earth needs a good lawyer.”

To see Part 1 of our discussion with Patti Goldman, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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