Since the invasive spotted lanternfly was first discovered in southeastern Pennsylvania four years ago, scientists have been working furiously to find a way to limit its spread and the damage it can do, particularly to the high-value grape, tree-fruit, hardwood and nursery industries. Horticultural oil, neem (a naturally occurring botanical pesticide found in the seeds of the neem tree) and certain systemic pesticides absorbed by plants upon which the insect feeds are regarded as leading contenders, in part, because they are “soft” pesticides, meaning they are less likely to harm beneficial insects or the environment.
Noticeably absent from the still-developing list is chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate — a class of chemicals originally designed as a nerve agent. Its use as a pesticide has been linked to nervous system damage in children. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended zero tolerance on chlorpyrifos residue on food, essentially banning its use. One year ago, the Trump EPA reversed course and determined the widely-used chemical to be safe, denying a 10-year campaign by such groups as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Pesticide Action Network that sought to end its use.
It’s not that chlorpyrifos might not be effective on the insect, it’s that a lot of insecticides can kill the spotted lanternfly that carry less risk. Better to use a more narrow spectrum product that isn’t associated with impaired cognitive development, autism and ADHD in children. Entomologists and other researchers aren’t yet settled on exactly what chemicals are best or whether a predator might be found to limit the burgeoning population, but they have already instructed farmers and homeowners on a management regime (including quarantines on certain kinds of plants and treating so-called “Tree of Heaven,” a preferred host and food for adults) and none of it involves chlorpyrifos.
That’s what makes the recent action in the Maryland General Assembly — legislation that would have banned chlorpyrifos has been withdrawn from the House and turned into a punchless task force in the Senate — so curious. The justification is that the controversial chemical is a last line of defense against the spotted lanternfly, that farmers and others need this “tool in the toolbox” as the insect flies south from the Keystone State into Maryland. We’ll admit the bug is a little weird — the Asian native is colorful and destructive, but it doesn’t bite. Yet what’s more valuable, the state’s crops and golf courses or its children?
That’s not an unreasonable question. When the EPA reversed course on chlorpyrifos last spring, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh sprung into action, joining his legal counterparts from Washington state, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia in filing suit in the 9th Circuit against the Trump administration on the grounds that the pesticide has not been proven safe. We don’t recall leaders in the General Assembly raising any fuss about that lawsuit. Does the presence of the spotted lanternfly really fundamentally change how we should react to the risk posed to infants, children and pregnant women?
Either lawmakers are easily scared by the newest bug that’s apparently getting ready to show its colorful wings around town or they are easily cowed by lobbyists representing the Maryland Farm Bureau or the golf course operators that use the chemical to keep down weevils. If legislators are that worried about lanternflies, they should have lobbied Gov. Larry Hogan for more money in the budget for research on biocontrols or soft pesticides. Or conversely, if they are so convinced that chlorpyrifos is risk-free, why haven’t they called on Attorney General Frosh to pull back from his litigation to roll back use nationwide?
Small wonder that environmentalists are a little miffed about the sudden cold feet. As Ruth Berlin of the Maryland Pesticide Education Network recently observed when asked about the spotted lanternfly threat, “I think we have to be more concerned about our children.” Could it be that the real threat lawmakers are worried about is the loss of campaign donations from those associated with the chemical’s manufacturer DowAgroSciences or the customers who rely on it? If so, they ought to be more worried about how the parents of young children are going to react to such a Trump-like indifference to scientific research.