For half a century, U.S. staple foods such as corn, wheat, apples and citrus have been sprayed with chlorpyrifos, a dangerous pesticide that can damage the developing brains of children, causing reduced IQ, loss of working memory, and attention deficit disorders.
Earthjustice, among other groups, has for years pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban chlorpyrifos, as it is known to harm health, water and wildlife. The EPA was expected to make a decision by March 31, under a court order deadline. On March 29, the EPA refused to ban the pesticide. (Read reactions to the EPA's decision.)
“EPA is refusing to ban a pesticide that harms children’s brains. It is acting contrary to the law, the science, and a court order. In a word: unconscionable,” said Patti Goldman, managing attorney at Earthjustice, in response to the EPA's decision. A week after the EPA's announcement, Earthjustice, representing Pesticide Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council, asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to order the EPA to act based on its own scientific conclusions and permanently ban chlorpyrifos.
Here’s what you should know about chlorpyrifos and the ongoing struggle to keep this dangerous chemical away from our food, water, and wildlife:
What is chlorpyrifos?
How are people exposed to chlorpyrifos?
Why do we need a ban?
- All food exposures exceed safe levels, with children ages 1–2 exposed to levels of chlorpyrifos that are 140 times what EPA deems safe.
- There is no safe level of chlorpyrifos in drinking water.
- Pesticide drift reaches unsafe levels at 300 feet from the field’s edge.
- Chlorpyrifos is found at unsafe levels in the air at schools, homes, and communities in agricultural areas.
- All workers who mix and apply chlorpyrifos are exposed to unsafe levels of the pesticide even with maximum personal protective equipment and engineering controls.
- Field workers are allowed to re-enter fields within 1–5 days after pesticide spraying, but unsafe exposures continue on average 18 days after applications.
Which crops have chlorpyrifos on them?
What does the law require?
What are the current legal issues?
What’s happening now?
Is there anything I can do?
A Timeline of Chlorpyrifos
The Nazis developed organophosphates during World War II as nerve gas agents. (Sarin gas is in this family of chemicals.) After the war, the chemical companies adapted the organophosphates to be used as pesticides, primarily as insecticides.
Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate pesticide first registered as an insecticide in the U.S. for both agricultural and residential uses, before Silent Spring and adoption of environmental and health standards in U.S. laws governing pesticide use.
EPA orders DowElanco to pay $876,000, the largest fine up to that time, for violating a federal law requiring it to report human health problems from chlorpyrifos.
Dow stops home uses of chlorpyrifos after EPA finds unacceptable risks to children who crawl on treated carpets or hug their pets after a flea bomb. Termiticide uses are also phased out.
EPA re-registers chlorpyrifos and the other organophosphates, purporting to bring them into compliance with health and environmental standards put in place after they were initially registered for use in the United States. EPA allowed risks of poisonings to workers to continue, ignored pesticide drift, and dismissed the growing evidence that prenatal exposures damage children’s brains.
Air monitoring detects chlorpyrifos at levels that exceed what EPA considered safe for children. California Air Resources Board monitoring finds chlorpyrifos at elementary schools and other sites near orange fields in Tulare County, California, at unsafe levels.
On behalf of United Farm Workers and other farmworker advocates, Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice file a lawsuit challenging EPA’s re-registration of chlorpyrifos despite the harm to workers and from toxic drift.
Pesticide Action Network and Natural Resources Defense Council file petition seeking a ban on chlorpyrifos based on evidence of brain damage from prenatal exposures and toxic drift.
On behalf of farmworkers and health advocates, Earthjustice files a petition asking EPA to protect children from pesticide drift.
Centers for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research at Columbia, Berkeley, and Mt. Sinai study children exposed to CPR in utero and find statistically significant neurodevelopmental harm including reduced IQ, delayed development, loss of working memory, and attention deficit disorders. A 2012 study found chlorpyrifos exposure led to changes in the physical structure of the developing brain.
EPA documents toxic drift from chlorpyrifos in its preliminary risk assessment, and EPA acknowledges its legal obligation to protect children from pesticide drift.
EPA reaches an agreement with the chlorpyrifos registrants to put buffer zones around schools, day cares, homes, playfields, and other places occupied by people. The buffer zones vary in size from 10 feet for groundboom applications, 10–50 for airblast applications depending on the amount applied, and 10–100 for aerial spraying depending on the amount applied and the droplet size. In setting the buffer zones, EPA ignored direct drift onto people and inhalation exposures from groundboom and airblast spraying.
EPA releases its revised human health risk assessment:
(1) acknowledging the extensive body of peer-reviewed science correlating chlorpyrifos exposure with brain damage to children and that the brain damage occurred at exposures far below EPA’s regulatory endpoint based on acute pesticide poisoning risks;
(2) finding acute poisoning risks of concern to workers from over 200 activities, including mixing and loading various pesticide formulations, airblast, aerial, and groundboom spraying, and re-entering fields after spraying to perform tasks like thinning, irrigating, and hand harvesting.
EPA represented that it was going to negotiate with the registrants to agree to mitigation or stopping activities that expose workers to excessive poisoning risks. By June 2015, those negotiations had stalled.
Declaring it “necessary to end the EPA’s cycle of incomplete responses, missed deadlines, and unreasonable delay,” the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals orders EPA to act on the 2007 petition to ban chlorpyrifos by Halloween.
EPA proposes to revoke all food tolerances based on drinking water contamination, but it holds open the possibility that it might be able to allow some uses to continue. EPA takes no action to stop nonfood uses or to protect workers from unacceptable risks. Publication date was 11/06/2015.
More than 80,000 people submit comments on the proposal, urging EPA to ban all uses of chlorpyrifos, not just on food crops, and to start proceedings to stop uses that harm workers. Some of the comments submitted during public comment periods on chlorpyrifos:
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gives EPA a deadline of March 31, 2017, to take final action on the 2007 petition to ban chlorpyrifos and its proposed revocation of food tolerances.
On behalf of United Farm Workers, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Farmworker Association of Florida, GreenLatinos, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, League of United Latin American Citizens, Learning Disabilities Association of America, Migrant Clinicians Network, National Hispanic Medical Association, and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice petition EPA to immediately suspend all chlorpyrifos uses that pose unacceptable risks to workers, and to cancel all uses of chlorpyrifos.
EPA releases a revised human health risk assessment that uses neurodevelopmental effects as its regulatory endpoint. The new risk assessment found that:
- All food exposures exceed safe levels; children 1–2 years of age are exposed to 140 times the “safe” levels
- There is no safe level of chlorpyrifos in drinking water
- Toxic spray drift reached distances of 300 feet or more from the field’s edge
- All workers who mix and apply chlorpyrifos are exposed to unsafe levels of the pesticide even with maximum personal protective equipment and engineering controls
- Field workers are allowed to re-enter fields within 1–5 days after pesticide spraying, but unsafe exposures continue on average 18 days after applications
Public interest groups submit technical comments on EPA Proposal To Revoke Chlorpyrifos Tolerances.
Food safety laws require EPA to revoke food residue tolerances after making the determination that there are no safe food uses of a pesticide. Because EPA’s November 2016 risk assessment found that there are no safe food uses of chlorpyrifos, tolerance revocation must necessarily follow. Therefore, the farmworker and health advocate groups withdrew their September 2016 Chlorpyrifos Suspension Petition as tolerance revocation would end most uses of chlorpyrifos that harm workers.
Two days before a court ordered deadline, the EPA refuses to ban chlorpyrifos, despite the overwhelming evidence that the pesticide harms children, workers and the environment.
Earthjustice, representing Pesticide Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council, appeals the EPA's refusal to ban chlorpyrifos. The groups ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to direct the EPA to act within 30 days to ban all uses of chlorpyrifos, based on the agency’s own repeated findings that the pesticide is unsafe. Read the legal document.