On Wednesday, Scott Pruitt signed his first official action as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The New York Times headline captures it well: "EPA Chief, Rejecting Agency's Science, Chooses Not to Ban Insecticide." Well, then.
Let's break this down. First, the insecticide in question is chlorpyrifos, a widely used neurotoxic chemical that study after study has shown is harming the development of children's brains. One study even used MRI technology to link chlorpyrifos exposure to changes in brain architecture. And when mothers are exposed during pregnancy, their children have lower IQs, developmental delays and increased risk of autism.
Millions of children are exposed to chlorpyrifos residues on their food, and kids in agricultural areas risk much higher levels of exposure from contaminated air and water. The situation is serious.
In allowing chlorpyrifos use to continue, Pruitt is most definitely "rejecting agency's science."
Based on dozens of studies like those mentioned above — and years of their own analysis — EPA scientists put forward a proposal in late 2015 to withdraw all uses of chlorpyrifos on food crops. In fall 2016, they published a follow-up assessment of health risks that found that, through their diet, infants were being exposed to the pesticide at levels 140 times what could be considered safe. 140 times!
The scientists also found that workers were exposed at unsafe levels in the field, and that drinking water was contaminated at concerning levels.
The proposal to effectively ban chlorpyrifos was moving forward in time for the court-ordered deadline of March 31, and the agency pulled together a strong scientific case to back up the action. Yet in Wednesday's about-face decision, Mr. Pruitt called the science on chlorpyrifos "unresolved," and said agency experts will continue thinking about it until at least 2022.
Doing Dow's bidding
Why would an agency take action that flies in the face of its own scientists' recommendations?
When commenting on the withdrawal of chlorpyrifos a few months ago, Dow Chemical representatives objected to the agency's proposal and strongly urged regulators not to take their product off the market. Given the corporation's close ties to the Trump Administration, their lobbyists have undoubtedly had additional behind-closed-doors opportunities to make their ask.
On Wednesday, Mr. Pruitt obliged.
Perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise — as Attorney General for Oklahoma, Pruitt famously submitted a letter to EPA that had been written by his friends at an oil and gas corporation. He also, not incidently, sued EPA on behalf of fossil fuel interests more than a dozen times.
But still, it is surprising. Slightly stunning, actually. Pruitt's first decision out of the gates as EPA Administrator clearly and publicly puts the interests of a chemical corporation above both scientific evidence and children's health.
Waiting for EPA to get around to (maybe) taking action in 2022 is not in the cards on our end. PAN and our partners will be pressing legislators to take the agency to task for knowingly putting the health of U.S. children at risk. We'll also be taking Mr. Pruitt's EPA back to court.
We'll be working closely with our partners, including Californians for Pesticide Reform, to urge decisionmakers to act swiftly on chlorpyrifos here in the golden state, where 1.3 million pounds of the pesticide are used every year. As our colleagues (and co-plaintiffs) at the Natural Resources Defense Council point out:
Failing to act on chlorpyrifos comes at the expense of our children’s health . . . It’s time for California to follow the science, ban chlorpyrifos and lead the way to a healthier future.
And we'll continue to press for state and federal policies that support farmers who want to shift away from reliance on pesticides like chlorpyrifos. After all, science clearly shows that it's farm families — and farmworkers — who bear the brunt of harms caused by these agricultural chemicals.
Stay tuned for opportunities to join the effort in the coming weeks and months!