Fearful that President Donald Trump’s environmental regulators weren’t taking action against a harmful pesticide, Maryland lawmakers vowed to step in this year by proposing a state ban on the chemical.
But then along came the spotted lanternfly — that terrifying invasive species that sucks the sap from plants and quickly sucked the political will for banning the pesticide, chlorpyrifos.
In the Maryland General Assembly this week, fear of the lanternfly overcame fear of a pesticide that President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency had declared unsafe, but which Trump’s EPA has viewed with less concern.
That’s because chlorpyrifos could be the answer scientists has been looking for to combat the Asian insect that has spread across orchards and vineyards in Pennsylvania and threatens to appear in Maryland this spring.
Researchers are racing to figure out how to stop the lanternfly, seeking either a predator or a pesticide to counteract it. Some in the agriculture industry are hopeful chlorpyrifos could prove to be an antidote because it’s effective at killing similar insects’ eggs and larvae.
Colby Ferguson, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said farmers don’t want to lose what could be their last line of defense against the lanternfly.
“If you ban it, it’s out,” Ferguson said. “There’s no, ‘Maybe we should allow it for this or maybe we should allow it for that.’ ”
The argument — along with others from golf courses that use chlorpyrifos to fight a stubborn breed of weevil — won out in Annapolis, for now.
A House of Delegates proposal to ban the pesticide has been withdrawn, and a Senate version that has been watered down to create a task force to study the impact of a chlorpyrifos ban may be headed for failure, too.
That has frustrated environmentalists, who say there is no reason to count on chlorpyrifos to stop the lanternfly invasion — especially when the chemical has been linked to autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and developmental delays in children.
Ruth Berlin, executive director of the Maryland Pesticide Education Network, said that while invasive species are a concern, “I think we have to be more concerned about our children.”
“How do you decide that you need to keep a pesticide in a toolbox that has been confirmed to harm children long-term, when there are other tools in the toolbox?” Berlin said.
Chlorpyrifos has been used as a pesticide since the 1960s, but its uses were restricted in the 2000s to keep it out of homes, streams and public spaces. It is still approved for use to kill pests on corn, soybeans, fruit trees and other crops, on golf courses, and on utility poles.
Agriculture groups and golf course superintendents told Maryland lawmakers that chlorpyrifos is used relatively sparingly, sometimes in rotation with other pesticides that insects can develop resistance to. Chemical company Dow AgroSciences added that research shows that the current use of chlorpyrifos meets federal regulatory standards of “a reasonable certainty of no harm.”
But public health advocates, environmentalists and even some farmers said the pesticide, while effective, isn’t worth the risk.
“I hear what they’re saying,” said Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, who proposed the ban in the Senate. At the same time, she said, “we know that this is dangerous.”
Research has shown chlorpyrifos to be a risk to children and pregnant women, disrupting the nervous system and the development of young brains. Attorney General Brian Frosh has joined attorneys general in several other states in challenging the Trump administration’s inaction on the pesticide, accusing the EPA of ignoring its own science.
Enter the spotted lanternfly.
The winged insect bores into plants and sucks the sap from within them, significantly damaging or killing them. It first appeared in Pennsylvania in 2014 and has since ravaged grape vines, fruit trees, hop plants and hardwoods across a dozen counties, as close as a few miles from the Maryland border.
Maryland entomologists and agriculture officials are on guard for the invader to cross the Mason-Dixon Line — and it may have already, its eggs just waiting for warmer weather to hatch.
And there is no sure weapon against its attack, other than finding its eggs before they hatch, scraping them off and killing them in rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer. Agriculture science researchers at Penn State University have tested a variety of pesticides, some of which have shown promising effectiveness on adult lanternflies. They are also studying the insect’s genetic code to help identify a natural predator to control its spread.
Some farmers hope chlorpyrifos, or another pesticide, might kill lanternfly eggs and stop the insects before they can cause any damage.
“Its value could be in stopping the cycle from year to year,” Ferguson said.
Advocates for a chlorpyrifos ban note that there is no peer-reviewed, published research to justify counting on chlorpyrifos to combat the lanternfly invasion. Ferguson said farmers are hoping that soon changes.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, one of the ban-bill’s sponsors, said he is skeptical that the lanternfly threat justifies keeping chlorpyrifos on the shelf.
“I’d be open to hearing that argument,” the Prince George’s County Democrat said. “I just haven’t yet.”
The lawmakers who proposed the ban are now pushing for creation of a task force to study the economic and environmental impacts of a chlorpyrifos prohibition.
But after repeated delays and battles with Republicans on the Senate floor over the agriculture and golf industries’ role in that research, Democratic senators sent the proposal back to committee for a second time Thursday. That is often a death knell for legislative proposals, though the chlorpyrifos bill surmounted a similar hurdle earlier in the session.
Del. Dana Stein, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the ban legislation in the House, said that while lawmakers may have failed at providing environmental protections they say Trump’s EPA will not provide, the watered-down legislation would at least accomplish one thing: It could keep the issue alive for another year.