EPA Should Ban Toxic Pesticide: United States

Human Rights Watch

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should ban all uses of the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, Human Rights Watch said today.

The agency has previously acknowledged the well-documented health risks associated with exposure to chlorpyrifos, but continues to fail to adequately protect public health by prohibiting its use. Millions of pounds of chlorpyrifos are applied annually to US food crops including corn, wheat, cherries, strawberries, and asparagus.

“The continued use of this toxic pesticide threatens the health of farmworkers, many of whom may be afraid to speak up or seek medical care, as well as the health of their families and surrounding communities,” said Felix Horne, senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Banning chlorpyrifos would be an opportunity for the Biden administration to demonstrate its commitments to both public health and environmental justice.”

In January 2021, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order committing the EPA to review the actions taken by the administration of former President Donald Trump to continue to allow use of this pesticide on food. But more immediate action is needed to address the urgency of the threats, which include an increased risk of neurodevelopmental conditions such as learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) following prenatal exposure – and links to cancer, endocrine disruption, and other health problems including dizziness, confusion, respiratory paralysis, and even death following exposure in children and adults.

The millions of people in the United States who could be consuming food tainted with chlorpyrifos residues are also at risk. In its most recent assessment of the prevalence of pesticide residues in the US food supply, the Food and Drug Administration’s Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program found that more than five percent of the 4,404 food samples studied had detectable levels of chlorpyrifos.

The EPA under the administration of former President Barack Obama proposed a ban on chlorpyrifos in 2015 – which would have eliminated allowable limits for food residues – in response to a petition from public interest groups concerned about the health impacts. But the EPA under the Trump administration abandoned the proposal and denied the petition, continuing to allow low levels of chlorpyrifos to remain on certain food crops.

Regulatory bodies outside of the United States have recognized the risks of chlorpyrifos exposure and are taking action to protect the public. Recently, the European Food Safety Authority found that there is no safe level of exposure to chlorpyrifos. This led the European Union to ban the use of the pesticide in 2020 and to adopt tighter limits on food imports with chlorpyrifos residues. In June, Thailand‘s ban on the import of foods that contain any level of chlorpyrifos will take effect.

Within the United States, state governments in Hawaii, California, and New York have taken concrete action and issued bans to protect their constituents where the federal government has failed. But while these state governments can eliminate application of the pesticide within their borders, they cannot prevent exposure to chlorpyrifos through food residues on goods imported from other states or countries, as only the federal government has this authority, underscoring the need for the EPA to act.

In the United States, the risks associated with pesticide exposure disproportionately affect women, children, and people of color. Research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health determined that female farmworkers are twice as likely to experience pesticide-related illnesses and injuries as are male farmworkers, even if the women don’t directly handle pesticides. It is possible that this discrepancy is due to differences in training.

Like women, children are uniquely vulnerable to the adverse effects of pesticide exposures. Human Rights Watch has previously documented child farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides in the US. Many pesticides, including chlorpyrifos, are toxic to the brain and reproductive health system, both of which continue to grow and develop during adolescence.

Environmental racism also plays a role. US farmworkers are overwhelmingly undocumented people of color. This population is less likely to report illness or injury for fear of retaliation, and less likely to seek or have access to medical care. People in Black and brown communities also bear the brunt of toxic pollution in the United States, including high levels of air pollution from industrial – including chemical – manufacturing.

In March, Human Rights Watch joined Earthjustice and 99 other human rights, farmworker, public health, labor, faith, and environmental organizations in submitting a letter to the EPA urging the Biden administration to immediately stop all uses of this dangerous pesticide because of the risks to health.

Banning chlorpyrifos in favor of safer alternatives is an opportunity for the Biden administration to demonstrate its commitments to US workers; protecting the environment and public health; and racial and gender equality.

“With each day chlorpyrifos remains in use, the health of the public remains at risk,” Horne said. “The EPA should immediately start the cancellation process to end all uses of this toxic pesticide.”

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