Earlier this year the Trump administration jettisoned environmental rules that would have halted the use of a pesticide that has been shown to damage children’s brains. Pending state legislation that would at least do so in New Jersey hit a road block last week.
The hard-to-spell and -pronounce chlorpyrifos, which is sold under such brand names as Lorsban and Dursban, is an organophosphate, part of a class of chemicals developed by the Nazis for use as a weapon.
Chlorpyrifos has been used to kill insects and worms since 1965 and is widely used in agriculture on a broad range of crops including soybean, corn, oranges, apples, walnuts, onion, grapes and broccoli.
But it is also toxic to birds, fish and non-target insects such as bees.
And humans too. Chlorpyrifos is a neurotoxin, whose use is linked to neurological problems and autoimmune issues. Prenatal exposure has been tied to lower birth weight, reduced IQ, learning disabilities, attention disorders, and delayed motor development.
Farmers, exterminators and others who have direct contact with sprayed chlorpyrifos are most at risk but it also drifts beyond the sprayed areas and can linger for days. Exposure also occurs through residues on food and in drinking water.
Data collected from families living in Northern California during the 1990s and analyzed for the a health survey by the National Center for Health Statistics in 2009-2010 found chlorpyrifos metabolite (TCPy) in 91% of the human urine samples tested. It also showed up in 98.7% of floor wipes, showing that exposure was occurring inside the home.
Chlorpyrifos has also been detected in air monitoring studies done by the California Air Resources Board.
Multiple studies have found a correlation between early exposure to chlorpyrifos—shown through such means as its presence in umbilical cord blood – and impacts on cognitive and motor development.
It was one of the most widely used residential pesticides until the Environmental Protection Agency banned it for such uses in 2000.
That same year, the EPA prohibited its use on tomatoes and limited use on apples and grapes. Two years after that, those limits were extended to tree nuts, citrus fruits and other crops.
In 2012, the EPA took further precautions, lowering the application rates and creating no-spray buffer zones around public spaces including homes and parks.
After years of study and at the urging of the American Pediatric Association and environmental advocates, it looked like the EPA would halt the use of chlorpyrifos.
Faced with a court order resulting from a 2007 petition by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pesticide Action Network of North America, the EPA in November 2015 proposed a rule that would revoke all tolerances for chlorpyrifos residues on food, stating that “the consistency of finding neurodevelopmental effects is striking” in the scientific literature and that it was “unable to conclude that the risk from aggregate exposure from the use of chlorpyrifos meets the safety standard” of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
The agency followed up in November 2016 with a revised assessment of the health risk to humans, concluding among other things, that there is no safe level of exposure in food or drinking water and that chlorpyrifos is present at unsafe levels in schools and homes located in agricultural areas.
The EPA was supposed to take final action on the issue by March 31 of this year.
Instead, the agency, now led by Trump-appointee Scott Pruitt, on March 29 rejected a ban, claiming that “the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved” and that “further evaluation . . . is warranted to achieve greater certainty as to whether the potential exists for adverse neurodevelopmental effects to occur from current human exposure to chlorpyrifos.”
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the reversal came about after Pruitt met with Andrew Liveris, the CEO of Dow Chemical, whose Dow Agribusiness subsidiary makes chlorpyrifos.
Dow donated $1 million for the Trump inaugural festivities and Liveris was a key advisor to the Trump Administration and headed up the since-disbanded American Manufacturing Council. When Trump signed a February executive order creating federal agency task forces in charge of choosing regulations to roll back, Liveris was standing behind Trump, who handed him the pen as a souvenir.
On June 5, the States of New York, Washington, California, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, and Vermont filed formal objections to the EPA’s March 29 order.
The EPA action deferred a determination until at least 2022.
Into the breach, stepped New Jersey Assemblymen Tim Eustace (D-Bergen) and James Kennedy (D-Middlesex), who on May 18, introduced A-4794, which prohibits the sale, purchase, use and application of chlorpyrifos. It was approved by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee that same day.
A companion bill, S-3405, filed by Senators Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) and Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) on July 4 was due for a vote by the Senate Environment and Energy committee on Nov. 20.
Testimony was heard from both sides.
Opponents included Ed Waters of the New Jersey Green Industry Council, comprised of lawn care companies, arborists, pest control companies and the golf course industry, who asserted that scientific proof was lacking, and cranberry grower Steven Lee IV, who said the state should not regulate pesticides and doing so would put New Jersey growers at a competitive disadvantage. Dennis Hart of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey and Edward Wengryn of the New Jersey Farm Bureau also spoke against the bill on similar grounds.
Those in favor included Doug O’Malley of Environment New Jersey, David Pringle of Clean Water Action and Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club, who referred to chlorpyrifos as a weapon of mass destruction that kills 10,000 people a year around the world and last year sent 50 California workers to the hospital.
Tittel also pointed out that the six states that objected to the EPA reversal and are trying to join a lawsuit over the issue brought by the national Sierra Club and Earthjustice include major apple producers and some grow cranberries too.
No one except committee chair Bob Smith seemed ready to vote for the bill, including Democrats Richard Codey (Essex) and Linda Greenstein (Union), who said “I don’t think this has to be done in Washington” but she wanted to know more about the science and the alternatives to chlorpyrifos.
As a result, Smith held the bill so that the committee could obtain and review the information on which the EPA relied as well as other scientific materials, including some produced by Rutgers University.
The next and possibly only committee meeting before the session ends is on Dec. 4 and the agenda for that meeting, which has already been set, does not include the bill. It is possible the committee will meet one last time on January 4.
Even if the bill could be rushed through floor votes before the session ends, it would likely face a veto from Christie, who was bad on environmental issues even before he became a Trump backer
There are already plans to refile the bill in the upcoming 2018-2019 session, which begins on Jan. 9.
There is also a federal bill, S.1624, The Protect Children, Farmers & Farmworkers from Nerve Agent Pesticides Act. It would prohibit all chlorpyrifos use in food and give the EPA 90 days to arrange with the National Research Council for a “cumulative and aggregate risk assessment that addresses all populations, and the most vulnerable subpopulations, including infants, children, and fetuses, of exposure to organophosphate pesticides.” It was introduced by Tom Udall (D-NM) on July 25 and its 10 cosponsors include Cory Booker.