Yesterday (July 18), the Environmental Protection Agency rejected a long-contested petition challenging the sale of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a product linked to brain damage in children. The agency announced it would publish its decision in the Federal Register, asserting that data demonstrating the reported health effects is “not sufficiently valid, complete or reliable.”

Chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate, hails from the same chemical family as nerve agents such as sarin, famous for its weaponized use in World War II. Studies led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) itself have found that families exposed to chlorpyrifos in agricultural communities or apartment buildings had children with lower birth weights and reduced IQs, among other developmental issues.

The pesticide has been largely phased out of residential use since 2000, but its agricultural use remains widespread. Farmers apply chlorpyrifos to more than 50 crops, including apples, almonds, and broccoli, and...

“The science on chlorpyrifos is clear and unambiguous,” says Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), who introduced legislation to ban the pesticide nationwide, in an interview with The New York Times. “It damages the developing brains of children and causes serious health problems in those who have been exposed to it.”

President Barack Obama’s administration initiated a blanket ban of chlorpyrifos in 2015, but it was repealed by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. A federal appeals court ordered that Pruitt’s decision be reconsidered, leading to the EPA’s decision this week.

“Today’s decision is shameful,” says Kristin Schafer, the executive director of the Pesticide Action Network, in an email to the Washington Post. “It flies in the face of decades of strong scientific evidence, and the recommendations of the agency’s own scientists.” 

Despite the EPA resolution, numerous states, including Hawaii, California, and New York, have moved to eliminate chlorpyrifos use within the next few years. 

“To me, this starts the clock on the use of chlorpyrifos on food crops in the US,” says Kevin Minoli, a former senior EPA attorney, in an interview with the Associate Press. Thursday’s decision could propel the issue to federal court, where the EPA would have to prove with reasonable certainty that chlorpyrifos does not cause harm. 

Nicoletta Lanese is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at nlanese@the-scientist.com.

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