In Annapolis, lawmakers are frequently asked to weigh competing public interests and decide which is more important. Sometimes, that can be difficult, as when legislators are asked to set tax rates that are fair and competitive with surrounding states. No one wants to raise taxes, but then no one wants to cut vital programs that tax dollars support either. And then there are the relatively easy calls when a substantial public interest runs up against private profit and convenience. What to do about a pesticide that can harm children’s brains would seem to easily fit that latter category. So why is the General Assembly struggling with this issue?
The pesticide in question is chlorpyrifos. It’s widely used by farmers around the world, but it was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency four years ago because of the overwhelming evidence of the harm it does to children and developing fetuses. Case closed, right? Well, not so fast. Under President Donald Trump and then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the federal agency reversed course two years ago, overruling the judgment of its own scientific experts. That decision was challenged by states including Maryland. Last summer, a federal appeals court sided with Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and other petitioners ordering EPA to put the ban back in place. But that’s on hold as an 11-judge panel now considers the case.
What does that have to do with the General Assembly? Quite a bit, as lawmakers have been asked to put a statewide ban into effect while the federal ban and its appeals wend their way through the system. A hearing on that legislation is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon before the House Environment and Transportation Committee. Its passage should be assured, but it isn’t. Lawmakers had a chance to take this very same action last year and declined to do so. Why? It appears chiefly because farmers (but mostly lobbyists) argued that they needed to keep chlorpyrifos on hand in their battle against the spotted lanternfly.
The spotted lanternfly is a potentially serious problem for farmers in the Northeast, no doubt. The invasive species (it is native to southeast Asia) is considered an especially worrisome threat to the grape, tree-fruit, hardwood and nursery industries. In Pennsylvania, the state has quarantined counties where it’s been observed (meaning local businesses that deal with fly-infested products are closely supervised). Billions of dollars of goods are at stake. And most worrisome, for the first time a spotted lanternfly was found in Maryland, specifically in the northeast corner of Cecil County last fall. Officials do not believe the population has yet taken hold in the state, but the potential is obviously there.
But here’s what should give lawmakers pause. Chlorpyrifos is just one of a handful of pesticides that can be used to kill lanternfly adults and eggs. It’s not considered the best, just one of a half-dozen or more where results have shown some potential — as Penn State researchers recently concluded. So on the one side there’s evidence that it’s moderately helpful. But then let’s look at the other side of the equation: The EPA’s own research found children who eat fruit and vegetables sprayed with the pesticide can end up ingesting levels of the toxin 140 times what is considered safe. It’s been linked not only to lower IQ in children but to increased learning disabilities, development delay, and behavioral problems like ADHD. That’s not just serious, it’s a nightmare for families, especially those who are employed in the agriculture sector.
It would be one thing if this particular pesticide — derived as it was from a nerve agent — was the only choice to keep farming afloat. But it clearly is not. Why take a chance when there are less dangerous alternatives available? It’s bad enough that the Trump administration continues to resist the findings of its own scientists, but there’s simply no excuse for state lawmakers to demonstrate similar reluctance. Is a state-level ban the best answer? Absolutely not. But it’s better than leaving the matter in limbo. At worst, the ban will protect only those children who come in contact with Maryland-produced products. And, yes, it might raise costs for farmers. But when doing nothing means continued harm to children (not to mention the Chesapeake Bay, where chlorpyrifos can negatively impact fish spawning), lawmakers have no reasonable choice but to side with human health and safety.