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The Pesticides on Your Produce Are Potentially Dangerous. Why Won't the EPA Ban Them?

Spoiler: it involves lobbyists.
Photo via Flickr user IFPRI Images

In March of 2017, then-E.P.A. chief Scott Pruitt rejected a recommendation from his own agency to ban the use of chlorpyrifos—a widely-used pesticide that was shown to have "significant health consequences."

This strange move inspired New York Times reporters Eric Lipton and Danny Hakim to issue a Freedom of Information Act request to the E.P.A.—the result of which was released over the weekend as a deep dive into how the Trump administration is siding with the pesticide companies to reject the troubling findings of a whole genre of health studies.


This is dense reporting—especially in light of how much constant crap we're expected to keep up with these days. And the potentially dangerous impact will be slow-burning and difficult to trace. But it represents a regression in the way our government incorporates the science designed to keep us safe and, as Lipton pointed out on Twitter, "If you eat, you should care."

The problem with trying to understand the health impact of pesticides is that studies that rely on rodents are inconclusive and studies that use human volunteers are unethical (and are understandably heavily restricted). Epidemiology presents a third option: long-term studies of population subsets that are already defined by their exposure. In other words: Studying the farmworkers and their children who come in direct contact with the pesticides in their everyday life. This kind of study is expensive and requires decades of monitoring (not to mention involves its own ethical dilemmas, considering the probable findings), but the EPA has spent millions aiding in the funding of university epidemiological studies that are now starting to yield results.

The documents obtained by the Times show that there was already some simmering dissent within the E.P.A. regarding how to interpret the findings of such studies, which are admittedly difficult to control for all the extenuating factors. But in the final months of the Obama administration, it looked like chlorpyrifos was going to get banned on the basis of damning epidemiological findings that linked the chemical to cancer. And then Trump got elected.


Pruitt, and the pesticide lobbyists he's been meeting with, claim that their issue with epidemiology is that it's a "secret science"—a term used to discredit the studies on the basis that the participants' personal information is not disclosed. The proposed "Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science" would disqualify from consideration studies that conceal the identities of the subjects—which is an existing privacy requirement for federally-funded studies.

If that sounds overly convoluted, consider the following anecdote from the Times report, which will make you want to go live in a bunker and subsist on Soylent:

The E.P.A., whose new leadership is seeded with industry veterans, has responded. In a mid-July assessment of atrazine, a widely used weed killer long banned in Europe, the agency reviewed and dismissed 12 recent epidemiological studies linking the herbicide to such ailments as childhood leukemia and Parkinson’s disease. It echoed the conclusions of research funded by Syngenta, atrazine’s manufacturer, finding the chemical unlikely to cause cancer.

"Secret science" may sound like a Trumpism, but there's actually a troubling precedent. That's exactly what the tobacco industry called their plan to discredit studies on the the dangers of smoking.

They employed a strategy of what the former head of O.S.H.A. called "weaponized transparency"—demanding to see the raw data from disparaging studies as a stalling tactic that served to delay tobacco regulations.

It's an appallingly self-serving playbook, but it's one that the current E.P.A. is falling for. There is some hope, however. In the spring, a federal appeals court ordered the E.P.A., now led by Andrew Wheeler, to institute a ban on chlorpyrifos, saying that there was “no justification for the E.P.A.’s decision in its 2017 order to maintain a tolerance for chlorpyrifos in the face of scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children.”