Chlorpyrifos isn’t a word that trips naturally off the tongue. Only slightly more intelligible is Lorsban, the name under which chlorpyrifos is commercially marketed. What consumers need to know most about the widely-used pesticide is that its been linked to childhood brain damage. Concerns about its harmfulness to kids have been around for nearly two decades when its household use was discontinued. Four years ago, the Obama administration moved to ban it entirely.
But then came Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt and, most recently, Andrew Wheeler, who announced last Thursday the Environmental Protection Agency won’t be prohibiting its use despite a request from environmental and public health advocates to do so. The EPA administrator dismissed his own agency’s past research as “not sufficiently valid, complete or reliable.”
That move was wrong, wrong, wrong. Not because there isn’t more to learn about the pesticide and its lingering effects — such as the impact of chlorpyrifos residue commonly found on popular grocery store mainstays like broccoli and strawberries — but because a federal agency charged with protecting human health and safety ought to be erring on the general public’s side. Their primary mission is not to protect the profitability of the chemical industry or even farmers who may find chlorpyrifos an affordable and convenient product but have other pesticide alternatives available to them. A 2014 EPA assessment warned that even relatively low exposure to the chemical can have disastrous consequences on youngsters. Shouldn’t Corteva Agriscience, its maker, be forced to prove its safety rather than allow the rest of us to be guinea pigs?
Fortunately, this is unlikely to be the final word on the subject. Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly was asked to ban chlorpyrifos on the state level. Lawmakers declined to do so, in part, because farmers argued that the pesticide might be an effective tool in combating the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species from Asia that first appeared in neighboring Pennsylvania and a handful of other states five years ago. Yet even today, Penn State Extension recommends a variety of treatments, including systemic pesticides (the kind absorbed by plants) like dinotefuran, imidacloprid, carbaryl and bifenthrin. In other words, if Maryland ever goes to war against this particular sap-sucking bug, chlorpyrifos isn’t important enough to risk serious health problems in children. There are many other options including, as Penn State still suggests, squashing the bugs manually.
Thanks to the EPA’s failure, a ban is likely to win favor next January with lawmakers in Annapolis who will find themselves with considerable company across state capitals. Hawaii has already banned chlorpyrifos. New York has, too. Other states, including agriculture giant California, are also moving in that direction. Maryland has more incentive to join the movement than most. In addition to causing childhood brain damage and being linked to ADHD, autism and pediatric cancer, the pesticide’s runoff from farm fields can damage Chesapeake Bay aquatic life, bees and other pollinators and an estimated 97% of all federally endangered or threatened species.
Environmental advocates are expected to challenge the EPA in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn its decision. Many observers believe they are likely to succeed, but that could take months, if not years. Such legal actions have become a tiresome and costly pattern of regulating the regulators forced on non-profits by an administration chronically indifferent to public health. Three months ago, the EPA announced new rules governing asbestos, one of the most harmful substances known to mankind, yet experts say the new regulations actually softened the government’s approach and may cause a proliferation of asbestos-containing products to enter the market. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh is one of 11 AG’s from across the country now taking the EPA to court over that decision, too.
Detractors who find Mr. Frosh too focused in federal matters ought to explain to Maryland families why he should do nothing as the EPA puts their most vulnerable at risk by ignoring the agency’s own research. Baltimore area lawmakers Del. Dana Stein and Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam warned Marylanders six months ago that the Trump EPA couldn’t be relied upon to protect us from chlorpyrifos. They were proven correct. A statewide ban is the least legislators can do now to limit the damage.