As the world was distracted by the news that the Energy Department's climate office banned the use of the phrases "climate change", "emissions reduction", and "Paris Agreement", Scott Pruitt, the climate-change denialist who is head of the EPA under Trump, quietly ruled not to ban a pesticide—despite the EPA's own scientific findings that it causes harm in humans.
In what should be a shock to no one, the man who sued the very agency he now helms a staggering 14 times has decided he is super chill with Americans continuing to be exposed to the pesticide chlorpyrifos. The substance was recommended for a permanent ban by the Obama administration and the EPA's own chemical safety experts after it was found in a study to cause harm to children and farm workers.
Farmers use chlorpyrifos on citrus trees, strawberries, and vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower. In fact, you might see the residue it leaves on foods you buy in the supermarket. Over a decade ago, the spraying of chlorpyrifos to get rid of household bugs was banned, but the Obama administration's recommendation that it be banned for use in farming will now fall by the wayside.
Food safety activists are alarmed with the move. Danielle Nierenberg, the president and co-founder of the food safety think tank called Food Tank, told MUNCHIES she believes the EPA's decision is tantamount to a violation of the human rights of Americans. "I think the EPA's decision is not only a refraction of science, but also a human rights abuse. The EPA's own scientists have concluded that chlorpyrifos can cause developmental delays and memory loss. To continue putting the nation's farmers, farm workers, and children at risk is a huge mistake, especially when there are alternatives."
Likewise, Willy Ritch, the acting executive director of Food Policy Action, told MUNCHIES he feels the move is akin to Scott Pruitt siding with the interests of agri-chemical manufacturers over the health of Americans. "It's outrageous that the one person who is most responsible for protecting Americans from harmful chemicals has decided to throw that science out the window and side with pesticide companies. Consumers want fewer toxins in their food, not more. Scott Pruitt has decided the interests of chemical companies are more important."
The pesticide, which is made by Dow Chemical and sold under the trade name Lorsban, was the subject of an EPA research study last year, the results of which found that the chemical can cause learning problems and memory decline in people exposed to it. In fact, children exposed to high levels of the pesticide had IQ levels that were a few percentage points lower than that of children who weren't exposed. Other studies have revealed that some people are more sensitive to the stuff because of a genetic predisposition. Despite arguments by Dow and a review panel that the science is not conclusive, as of 2016, the EPA itself still recommended that it be banned—until this week, that is.
A spokesperson for Dow provided MUNCHIES with the following statement: "Dow AgroSciences supports US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) decision to deny the petition to revoke US food tolerances and cancel the registration of chlorpyrifos. Dow AgroSciences remains confident that authorized uses of chlorpyrifos products offer wide margins of protection for human health and safety. This is the right decision for farmers who, in about 100 countries, rely on the effectiveness of chlorpyrifos to protect more than 50 crops. We will continue to cooperate with EPA under the established regulatory process in its scientific review of this vital crop protection solution."
Several of the experts we spoke with believe the flip-flop on the chlorpyrifos comes down to the EPA kowtowing to corporate pressure. Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, told MUNCHIES, "You can be sure that if Donald Trump's or Scott Pruitt's families lived on the edge of fields where this dangerous poison was routinely applied, they would not be approving its use. The science hasn't somehow changed because Donald Trump was elected president—it's just being ignored at the behest of corporate agriculture." A spokesperson for the EPA declined to comment to MUNCHIES on the agency's rejection of its own findings, and instead simply referred us to a URL of the rejection order.
Many are concerned about the ramifications the ruling may have on children's health. Others see it as a harbinger of anti-science policies to come. As Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, put it, "This decision is a stark demonstration of how hostility to science and science-based safeguards harms us all."