Reclaiming the future of food and farming

Yup, chlorpyrifos is bad for brains

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Kid in field

Following a clear body of science, California just listed chlorpyrifos as a "developmental toxicant." The insecticide is still widely used in agriculture across the state (and country), but now it will be officially listed with other health-harming chemicals under Proposition 65, the "Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986."

Acknowledging the harmful properties of this pesticide is an important step, yes, but it will be most meaningful if it paves the way for real action to protect California's agricultural communities. It's time to ban chlorpyrifos.

Remember Prop 65?

California residents are most familiar with the Prop 65 warning label on carcinogenic products, but these labels are also applied to chemicals determined to be developmental or reproductive toxicants by an independent science committee.

And yesterday, after reviewing relevant studies and listening to testimony from scientists and residents, the Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant Identification Committee (DARTIC) concluded that chlorpyrifos should be labeled as a brain-harming chemical. Because chlorpyrifos is already banned for home use, this label will only be visible to those using the insecticide for agricultural applications.

PAN scientist Dr. Emily Marquez, who spoke at the DARTIC hearing in Sacramento, said this:

The committee made the right decision in light of the scientific evidence. Chlorpyrifos is neurotoxic and the Prop 65 listing affirms what scientists, doctors and communities have been saying for years – children’s developing brains are incredibly vulnerable to low amounts of the chemical during critical windows of development. State regulators should follow today’s decision by finally taking this chemical off the market.”

15 years later . . .

It's not new news that chlorpyrifos harms brains, particularly children's developing brains. Research showing this was the impetus behind banning the chemical from home use more than 15 years ago. But progress on getting this chemical out of agricultural fields, and off of food crops, has been slow thanks in large part to the focused attention of its manufacturer, Dow Chemical.

On the national stage, Dow's influence was made clear ealier this year when, after closed door meetings with the company's CEO, newly appointed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made the surprising announcement that he wasn't going ban the use of chlorpyrifos on food crops — as the agency had previously announced it would do based on its own scientific analysis.

Chlorpyrifos be gone

Until California or federal officials take decisive action, 1 million pounds of chlorpyrifos will continue to be in fields across the state on more than 50 food crops — including almonds, oranges and grapes. Unfortunately for those living in agricultural communities, where homes and schools are often right next to fields, this means they will continue to be exposed to the chemical as it drifts on air currents. Kids, in particular, bear the brunt of this harmful exposure; a California Department of Public Health report from 2014 showed chlorpyrifos to be one of the top 10 pesticides of "public health concern" applied near schools in 15 counties.

While the Prop 65 listing doesn't reduce the amount of chlorpyrifos in use, or limit community exposure, it helps build on the momentum to take this chemical off the market once and for all. Viable alternatives exist. It's time for California to invest in them, and in farmer innovations, to keep the state's economy and communities thriving.  

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