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Earlier this year, California banned chlorpyrifos, a pesticide scientifically correlated with brain damage in children. Environmentalists and public health advocates saw this ban as a major victory in a long-running fight to nationally ban the chemical, which is widely used in farming cotton, citrus, grapes, almonds, walnuts, and more crops.
However, the movement to nationally ban chlorpyrifos has hit a major snag: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week refused to ban the pesticide.
In announcing its decision, the EPA effectively disregarded still-ongoing, but fruitful, research into the numerous dangers of chlorpyrifos. The government agency claimed that the data found across many studies might not hold up under “critical questions” regarding its “significance.”
This position is a reversal from four years earlier, when the agency, then under the supervision of President Barack Obama, issued guidance widely restricting the use of chlorpyrifos. Under the supervision of current President Donald J. Trump, however, the agency has endorsed chlorpyrifos against the direct recommendations of its own staff scientists.
The EPA’s recent decision nevertheless does not mark the end of the battle to ban chlorpyrifos. Instead, it potentially opens the door to a legal challenge in which a federal court could mandate that the EPA must reverse its decision.
Such a legal battle would not be the first time the EPA has been taken to court regarding this pesticide. Last year, three judges with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that the EPA halt all chlorpyrifos sales. The court later chose to reconsider this decision with a larger panel of 11 judges, and this panel allowed the EPA to postpone a chlorpyrifos decision of its own until this month.
The EPA is still considering how to restrict chlorpyrifos use without implementing a full ban. The agency has said that it will accelerate an ongoing review of the pesticide’s frequent, widespread use. In doing so, the agency hopes to meet a 2022 decision deadline well ahead of schedule.
Simultaneously, the EPA says it will speak with chlorpyrifos’ sole manufacturer, Corteva Agriscience, about how to best limit agricultural use of the chemical. A spokesperson for the company said that, “if necessary,” it will heed EPA guidelines for reducing the number of potential exposures to chlorpyrifos while tending to the farmers who depend on it to keep their crops properly growing. According to the EPA, currently, chlorpyrifos is the only affordable solution for keeping certain pests away from crops.
Last week’s decision to not ban chlorpyrifos comes as a direct response to a petition from a dozen environmental groups. These organizations pointed to scientific evidence that chlorpyrifos can lead to low birth weight, attention disorders, and reduced IQ in infants and children.
Well over a decade earlier, the chemical was linked with autism in the children of pregnant women living near farms that sprayed the pesticide on their crops. The pesticide was banned from residential use nearly two decades ago, in 2000, but the battle regarding its industrial use is not quite yet finished.