SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Following the lead of Hawaii, California regulators announced Wednesday that the state will bar farmers from using chlorpyrifos, a popular pesticide that studies have shown to be particularly toxic to children and farmworkers.
The California Environmental Protection Agency says its long-awaited decision is based on “mounting evidence” that chlorpyrifos can stem brain development in children at lower exposure levels than scientists previously thought. The pesticide has been banned nationwide since the early 2000s for domestic use but is still widely used on California’s cash crops, such as almonds and grapes.
“California’s action to cancel the registration of chlorpyrifos is needed to prevent the significant harm this pesticide causes children, farm workers and vulnerable communities,” said California EPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld in a statement. “This action also represents a historic opportunity for California to develop a new framework for alternative pest management practices.”
Environmental groups, which have been calling for California to ban the neurotoxin for decades, celebrated the agency’s decision.
“The science clearly shows that chlorpyrifos is too dangerous to use in our fields. Since California uses more chlorpyrifos than any other state, this ban will not only protect kids who live here, but kids who eat the fruits and veggies grown here,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement.
California farmers meanwhile say they’re once again “caught in the middle of a fight” among environmentalists and the government, and warned the ban could trickle down to the dinner tables of California’s 39 million residents.
“There will be trade-offs from cancellation of any pesticide. Food may become more expensive, and California-grown food less plentiful. That would leave our state’s residents dependent on food grown elsewhere – and not grown under the stringent rules California farmers follow,” said California Farm Bureau Federation president Jamie Johansson in an email.
Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate deriving from the same chemical family as sarin nerve gas. It is used widely on fruits and vegetables, particularly strawberries, apples, citrus fruits, broccoli and corn.
Last month state regulators formally listed the pesticide as a “toxic air contaminant” and began brainstorming better ways to spray and apply the pesticide. It only took the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and Air Resources Board a few weeks to determine that there were no safer alternatives to turn to and regulators quickly decided to “cancel” agricultural use.
Regulators say they will work with farmers to find safer alternatives to the pesticide, and that the cancellation process could take up to two years.
Hawaii was the first state to ban all uses of the pesticide in June 2018. New York lawmakers have also sent similar legislation to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
A Ninth Circuit panel recently ordered the Trump administration to decide by mid-July whether to implement a federal ban. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it will comply and take action before the court-mandated deadline.
California lawmakers are considering legislation similar to Hawaii and New York that would ban chlorpyrifos.
Supporters, such as Earthjustice, say Senate Bill 458 should still be passed even with Wednesday’s announcement as it will prevent state regulators from backsliding on the ban. The measure is currently waiting to be heard by a Senate fiscal committee.
“Our concern is that we’ll spend the next several years forcing [state regulators] to finish the process,” said Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie in a statement. “Until we know that chlorpyrifos is gone for good, we are going to keep pushing as hard as we can in as many places as we can, including in the California Legislature by supporting SB 458.”
While California makes up nearly 20% of all use of chlorpyrifos in the U.S., usage is trending downward: Golden State farmers used 900,000 pounds of the pesticide in 2016, down from 2 million pounds in 2005.
Along with the ban, the agency says Gov. Gavin Newsom has agreed to include $5.7 million in funding in his upcoming budget proposal to go toward researching alternatives to the controversial pesticide.