EPA Chief's Refusal To Ban Brain-Damaging Pesticide Shows Profit Trumps Public Safety

Scott Pruitt's own agency scientists found the chemical can cause irreversible harm.

WASHINGTON — Defying the recommendation of his own agency’s scientists, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has refused to ban a widely used pesticide that’s been linked to learning disabilities in children.

Pruitt’s order, signed late Wednesday, allows chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide that’s been used on crops from broccoli to cranberries since the 1960s, to remain on the market for agricultural use. The EPA proposed in November 2015 under the Obama administration to permanently ban the chemical on food crops, citing potential risks to human health. The move stemmed from a 2007 petition filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pesticide Action Network North America.

Critics on Thursday condemned Pruitt and President Donald Trump for showing they value corporate profits over public health. The move, less than two months after Pruitt was confirmed as the nation’s top environmental officer, signals far looser regulation of harmful substances under the Trump administration.

“If the new administration is willing to support corporate interests over public safety in the face of such strong scientific evidence, then we should expect clear sailing for many other questionable pesticides in the future,” Carey Gillam, a HuffPost contributor and research director for U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, told The Huffington Post in an email.

Pruitt, a lawyer who has shown disdain for scientific research, said the Obama-era proposal to ban the pesticide relied largely on studies “whose application is novel and uncertain, to reach its conclusions.”

“We need to provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos, while still protecting human health and the environment,” Pruitt, a longtime antagonist of the agency he now leads, said in a statement. “By reversing the previous Administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making — rather than predetermined results.”

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt holds up an an agency baseball hat as he addresses employees at the agency's headquarters in February.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt holds up an an agency baseball hat as he addresses employees at the agency's headquarters in February.
Aaron P. Bernstein via Getty Images

Chlorpyrifos, also known by its trade name Lorsban, is used in nearly 100 countries on more than 50 different crops, including corn, soybeans, cranberries and broccoli. Produced by Dow Chemical Co., it was largely banned in 2000 for at-home use in the U.S., but continues to be widely used on thousands of American farms.

Sheryl Kunickis, director of the the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Pest Management Policy, was among those who applauded Pruitt’s decision, which she said was “grounded in evidence and science.”

“It means that this important pest management tool will remain available to growers, helping to ensure an abundant and affordable food supply for this nation and the world,” Kunickis said in a statement.

Dow called it the “right decision for farmers” and said the chemical giant “remains confident that authorized uses of chlorpyrifos products offer wide margins of protection for human health and safety.”

Annual testing reports by USDA show chlorpyrifos residues in nectarines, peaches, cucumbers and other crops. Even low-dose exposure to organophosphates, particularly in the womb, has been found to harm brain development in children, leading to higher risk of disorders like autism.

For years, environmental groups and medical professionals have pushed for an all-out ban on the chemical. In a January letter to EPA, dozens of doctors, nurses and professors urged the agency to revoke all tolerances of chlorpyrifos in food.

“Children especially experience greater exposure to organophosphate pesticides due to their increased hand-to-mouth action, and relative to adults they eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more, and breathe more,” the letter states. “With each year of delay in cancelling food tolerances and agricultural and other uses of chlorpyrifos, more children are unnecessarily at elevated risk for problems in learning, social skills, motor function, and other developmental domains.”

A pilot sprays crops near Whittemore, Iowa.
A pilot sprays crops near Whittemore, Iowa.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

Jennifer Lowry, a pediatrician and toxicologist at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City and chair to the Council on Environmental Health for the American Academy of Pediatrics, told HuffPost she was “deeply troubled” by Pruitt’s decision, which she said denies science that chlorpyrifos causes irreversible harm to children. Multiple studies, she said, have shown that children exposed to organophosphate pesticides, such as chlorpyrifos, have an increased risk for abnormal neurodevelopment, including persistent loss of intelligence and behavior problems.

Lowry added that Pruitt’s decision allows the continued exposure of Americans to a substance that will harm children.

“The health of our children depends on it,” Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a senior scientist at NRDC, said in a statement.

The idea that Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma, would side with industry giants comes as little surprise. As HuffPost has reported, a recent release of Pruitt’s Oklahoma emails revealed his close relationship with the oil, gas and utility companies he’s now tasked with regulating.

Pruitt has also made clear his low regard for near-universally accepted science, saying last month that he does not believe carbon dioxide is primarily to blame for global warming.

Misstating the scientific evidence is just that, falsifying the facts,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, wrote in a blog post Thursday. “And it is not an excuse for inaction.”

Gillam noted that the EPA is now reviewing glyphosate, a commonly used herbicide sold as Roundup that the World Health Organization declared a probable carcinogen last year.

“Certainly if chlorpyrifos is going to get a pass, glyphosate will as well,” Gillam said by email. “Corporate profits have once again trumped protection of the public. The administration is making it clear we should expect more of the same.”

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He has threatened to undermine protections for air and water.

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