GroundTruth Blog

Real-life costs of slow decisions on pesticides

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by Kristin Schafer

The glacial pace of government decision-making on pesticides is costly. Not just the cost of years of paperwork, collecting and reviewing the endless stream of industry studies. And not just the cost of medical care for those who are damaged by toxins before they are taken off the market.

Sometimes, slow decisions result in pesticide exposures that cause such harm they fundamentally change the course of a child’s life. A cost that’s so high, it really can’t even be measured.

In Indiana last week, a jury tried to put a price tag on such harm. They awarded $23.5 million to the Ebling family, whose children suffered seizures and permanent damage to their nervous systems when their apartment was sprayed with the pesticide diazinon. The spraying took place back in 1994; EPA got around to banning this use of diazinon 10 years later. 

The Ebling’s children, Christina and Alex, are now 20 and 17. Christina can feed herself, but needs help getting showered or dressed. Her mother Cynthia says her daughter is about where a 2-year-old should be, developmentally. Alex is more functional, but academically and socially behind.

“It’s been devastating. Our lives will never be the same,” Cynthia told The Courier-Journal of Louisville, KY. As a mother of two, I can only imagine the agony this family has gone through.

We'll never know the full scope of such costs of sluggish decision-making — and diazinon is just one in a long litany of astonishingly slow action on pesticides:

  • Lindane was taken out of agriculture in 2006 – 29 years after being flagged as a “chemical of concern” by EPA scientists. A potent, long-lasting neurotoxin, lindane is still allowed in shampoos and lotions in the U.S.
  • EPA convinced Bayer CropScience to withdraw the highly toxic pesticide aldicarb just last month – more than 25 years after the worst case of consumer pesticide poisoning in U.S. history (tainted watermelons sickened more than 2,000 people). Use will be allowed until 2018.
  • Chlorpyrifos was taken off the market for home use back in 2001 because it puts children’s health at risk. EPA is now finally considering whether to disallow use in agriculture, where rural children continue to be exposed.

Meanwhile, the pace of science proving pesticide harms — and particularly the dangers to children — seems to be speeding up.

One recent study suggests Monsanto's popular herbicide Roundup may be linked to birth defects. A family of pesticides called organophosphates have been linked to everything from ADHD to childhood leukemia. The list goes on.

There are signs that EPA is making an effort to keep up. For example, officials called a special review of the weed killer atrazine last year, when it became clear that a new batch of science linking the herbicide to birth defects, reproductive harm and cancer was too strong to be ignored. Since this chemical is found in 94% of our drinking water supplies, let’s hope this time regulators don’t take three decades deciding what to do.

Kristin Schafer's blog

is PAN's Program & Policy Director. Follow @KristinAtPAN

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