In 2016, Environmental Protection Agency scientists concluded that one of the most commonly used insecticides in the country posed an unacceptable risk to public health and the environment. The agency estimated that infants, children 1 to 2 years old and children 6 to 12 years old were exposed to this pesticide at levels 93, 140 and 110 times levels EPA deemed safe, respectively. Unfortunately, due to the ubiquitous nature of pesticides, almost every children is exposed to pesticides at some level.
Dow Chemical first introduced chlorpyrifos in 1965. In 2000, EPA worked with Dow to eliminate the majority of indoor uses based on preliminary findings that chlorpyrifos harmed the developing brains of children. In 2016, when EPA released its updated risk assessment, the next steps seemed clear.
However, in 2017, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt suddenly reversed course, stating the agency would not ban chlorpyrifos. The prerogative to protect children, pregnant women and farmworkers in the fields from this dangerous chemical, therefore, moved to the states.
Late last month, New York became only the second state in the country to pass legislation to ban chlorpyrifos. Hawaii was the first. This monumental step forward for public health comes on the back of decades of research documenting the human health impacts of chlorpyrifos exposure.
Chlorpyrifos has been linked to neurodevelopmental defects — reduced IQ, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorder, delayed motor skills and loss of working memory in children and fetuses. These effects have been documented at low to moderate doses.
Yet it is still widely used in agriculture and is applied on fruits, vegetables, nuts and other conventionally grown crops. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration states it is the fourth most common pesticide found in our food supply.
When EPA scientists recommended a full ban, it was based solely on potential exposure to chlorpyrifos through food and drinking water. In other words, risk from dietary exposure was high enough to completely ignore the added risk of environmental contamination.
New York golf courses frequently use chlorpyrifos to treat for the Annual Bluegrass Weevil. This is especially concerning considering program built around bringing more children to the green, such as for instance First Tee, which also operated in the New York area.Even with the previous ban on most residential uses, homes along golf courses are still at a higher risk of exposure.
Chlorpyrifos also poses a serious environmental and public health risk due to its effects on beneficial, threatened or endangered species. A buried report from the Fish and Wildlife Service found that chlorpyrifos could "jeopardize the continued existence” of more than 1,200 endangered species, including some birds and fish.
Research also found chlorpyrifos to be the third most toxic insecticide to bees. Serious damage to important ecosystems in New York poses its own public health risk.
While federal inaction continues to threaten our children and the environment, it is heartening to see New York press ahead. Other states must now follow.