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Changing Trump course, Biden EPA set to ban hazardous pesticide

After a long-running battle including federal judges chastizing the EPA for continual delay in deciding whether a pesticide its own scientists said hurt children's brain development, the agency banned chlorpyrifos prompting celebrations from farmworkers, health advocates and environmentalists.

(CN) — In response to an order by the Ninth Circuit this past spring, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday it will ban the use of the nerve-agent pesticide chlorpyrifos where food is grown.

The announcement brings closure to a fight that began 14 years ago in 2007, pitting farmworkers, environmentalists and health advocates who say the chemical reduces IQ in exposed children against farmers and pesticide manufacturers who said the insecticide was critical for the nation’s food supply. 

“Today EPA is taking an overdue step to protect public health,” said Michael S. Regan, head of the EPA. “Ending the use of chlorpyrifos on food will help to ensure children, farmworkers, and all people are protected from the potentially dangerous consequences of this pesticide.”

Additionally, the agency said it will review use of the pesticide in non-food uses — mosquito control and in plant nurseries — in 2022. The Ninth Circuit had said the pesticide can only be used in cases where the EPA finds it is safe for children.

“It took far too long, but children will no longer be eating food tainted with a pesticide that causes intellectual learning disabilities. Chlorpyrifos will finally be out of our fruits and vegetables,” said Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman, who represented health and labor organizations in a lawsuit over the pesticide. “But chlorpyrifos is just one of dozens of organophosphate pesticides in our fields that can harm children’s development. EPA must ban all organophosphates from food.”

California already has a ban on chlorpyrifos — which is linked to brain damage in children — in place, and the manufacturer Corteva stopped making the pesticide at the end of 2020. But the Trump administration declined to put a ban in place in 2017 and then dragged its feet over three years and multiple trips to the Ninth Circuit.

The continual delays actually predate the Trump administration, as environmentalists initially brought a petition to ban the substance in 2007, during the administration of George W. Bush. In 2018, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, sitting by designation from the Southern District of New York, excoriated the federal agency for routinely failing to make a decision. 

“Despite these earlier expressions of concern, the EPA failed to take any decisive action in response to the 2007 petition, notwithstanding that the EPA’s own internal studies continued to document serious safety risks associated with chlorpyrifos use, particularly for children,” he wrote.

Chlorpyrifos is a nerve-agent pesticide, first used by the Nazis during World War II and later repurposed for agricultural use by Dow Chemical in 1965. It kills insects by suppressing the enzymes crucial for cell reproduction.

Recently, scientific studies have indicated exposure can lead to human health problems including neurological disorders and autoimmune diseases. Exposure can be particularly problematic for children, leading to developmental problems. The evidence of mental development problems in children who were exposed to the chemical in utero was so strong that the United States banned household use of the chemical.

However, regulations still allowed the chemical to be used commercially, and it’s still one of the most widely used insecticides in the nation.

The EPA’s own scientific studies bolstered other studies linking the chemical and developmental problems in children as far as 2007, when a petition to ban the chemical was first brought.

“Today, we celebrate this huge victory alongside the men and women who harvest our food, who have waited too long for a ban on this pesticide,” said Teresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers. “We are relieved that farmworkers and their families will no longer have to worry about the myriad of ways this pesticide could impact their lives.”

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