EPA just released its long overdue look at how the brain-harming insecticide chlorpyrifos is affecting human health. Once again, we're beyond disappointed with the agency's lack of leadership when it comes to protecting children from pesticides.
On the good news side, the report does recognize (finally!) that this particular chemical poses unacceptable risks to farmworkers, and something must be done. The bad news? The solutions they propose don't go nearly far enough, plus they manage to completely dodge the growing evidence that chlorpyrifos can derail the development of children's brains.
It's astonishing, really. Scientists have known for years that chlorpyrifos is especially harmful to children; it was banned from households for this reason well over a decade ago. Since then, the evidence of harmful neurological effects — particularly from pre-natal and early childhood exposure — has continued to pile up.
Strong science overlooked
Case in point is a recent study out of UC Davis, where researchers found that children in California's Central Valley were more likely to be on the autism spectrum when their mothers lived near fields sprayed with chlorpyrifos. As one of the study authors, epidemiologist Janie Shelton, explained to Environmental Health News:
"Chlorpyrifos is a neurotoxin that prevents the synapses of the nerves from stopping activity, causing over-stimulation. It has been linked to birth defects, low birth weights, impaired brain development problems, and endocrine disruption."
She went on to explain that fetuses are at much higher risk than adults, and their developing brains and nervous systems can be harmed by low — very low — levels of exposure. Sounds pretty bad, right?
Yet EPA's analysis of the health risks failed to look at childhood nervous system harms. They acknowledged the potential for these impacts, but then used an unrelated model to estimate potential harms and applied the standard 10x safety factor for children to account for any other possible effects.
Huh? I'm no scientist, but I understand that this makes no sense. And it means the agency's conclusions about risk are not reality-based. It turns out that clear science indicates that the risk to children from chloryprifos — even at extremely low levels — can be much more than 10-fold greater than the risk to adults.
A missed opportunity
The ban of household uses of chlorpyrifos back in 2001 went a long way to protect kids from this dangerous chemical. With this recent human health risk assessment, EPA had a chance to finish the job.
For more than a decade, widespread use of chlorpyrifos in agriculture has continued, and an untold number of U.S. children have been exposed. More than a million pounds of the chemical are applied every year in California alone, and more than five million nationwide.
Kids in rural areas are especially at risk, as my colleague Veena Singla of NRDC notes in a recent blog:
"Rural and farm children, on top of the chlorpyrifos they consume in food and water, confront additional chlorpyrifos exposures from the pesticide drifting off fields. Indeed, testing regularly finds evidence of chlorpyrifos in the air, water, and dust in people's homes in agricultural communities."
A recent report from California's Department of Public Health, for example, found that more than 100,000 kids attend school within 1/4 mile of spraying of chlorpyrifos and other known health-harming chemicals.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth critique of EPA's assessment, as our scientists take a closer look at the 500+ page report. We'll also keep folks posted on how they can help press EPA to do better by the nation's children when it comes to chlorpyrifos. And we're continuing to work with partners to press state officials to do better by California kids, despite the lack of leadership at the federal level.
As my colleague and Margaret Reeves, Ph.D., senior scientist at PAN notes in our recent press release:
"The science on health impacts — together with many personal stories — overwhelmingly supports the need for a phaseout."
This time, we can't let EPA miss the opportunity to do the right thing.