In a rebuke to the Trump administration, an appeals court Thursday ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to ban a widely used farm pesticide that environmentalists say can damage the nervous systems of farmworkers, their children and even consumers.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals told the EPA to ban the chemical known as chlorpyrifos within 60 days. The ruling by the 9th Circuit is a major victory for environmentalists and a defeat for agricultural interests and the Trump administration, which had refused to ban the pesticide.
The use of chlorpyrifos is well established in California agriculture. In a document filed with the EPA in 2015, the California Farm Bureau Federation said the chemical is used to control pests that attack almonds, apricots, and other mainstay crops. After the appeals court ruled, the Farm Bureau’s government affairs manager Jim Houston said he anticipates a ban on chlorpyrifos will yield “significant impacts to food and fiber production.”
Lawyers for Dow AgroSciences, the largest manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, disputed claims that the product is unsafe and argued that a ban on the pesticide would leave many farmers defenseless.
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“For many crops, chlorpyrifos is the only effective pest management product available,” the Dow lawyers wrote in a court filing. After Thursday’s ruling, the company said it’s considering its legal options and “will continue to support the growers who need this important product.”
On the other hand, the use of chlorpyrifos has fallen. California farmers applied just 900,000 pounds of chlorpyrifos in 2016, down from nearly 2 million pounds in 2005, according to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation. Agency spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe said the state has imposed certain restrictions on its application in recent years.
And farmers said they’re turning to alternatives.
“A lot of farmers are trying to find materials that are less harsh, less broad-spectrum,” said Joe Del Bosque, a prominent grower on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. In addition, Del Bosque, who occasionally uses chlorpyrifos on his almond trees, said many farmers are concerned that using the same chemical repeatedly will make the insects more resistant to it.
Marisa Ordonia, an attorney with Earthjustice, a Seattle environmental law firm that worked on the case, said EPA scientists had concluded in 2016 that the pesticide was harmful to farmworkers and their children — and could be dangerous to those eating the foods grown with the chemical. She said children ages 1 to 2 years old were particularly at risk to a host of neurological problems.
The EPA study cited data from California regulators showing that chlorpyrifos was affecting air quality in three largely agricultural communities: Salinas, Ripon and Shafter.
In the late stages of the Obama administration, the EPA was in the process of banning the chemical. Shortly after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced he was “reversing the previous administration’s steps” and would allow farmers to keep using chlorpyrifos.
In a 2-1 decision, the court rejected the EPA’s arguments, saying the agency hadn’t demonstrated with “reasonable certainty” that the chemical is safe. The court declared there “was no justification for the EPA’s decision in its 2017 order to maintain a tolerance for chlorpyrifos in the face of scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children.”
Ordonia said Earthjustice and other groups have been trying to ban chlorpyrifos since 2007. The plaintiffs in the case included the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
“This is a huge victory,” Ordonia said. “The court said, ‘EPA, you have to follow the science ... and follow the law.’”
Chlorpyrifos was introduced in 1965 by Dow as an alternative to the controversial pesticide DDT, which was banned several years later. As health concerns rose, the federal government negotiated a settlement with the chemical industry to eliminate its use in most residential settings in 2000, but it was still permitted in agriculture.
According to the EPA’s website, high doses of chlorpyrifos can cause nausea, dizziness and confusion. A 2017 report in the Journal of Neurochemistry said exposure to the chemical can lead to “neurological deficits that range from cognitive impairments to tremors in childhood.”
A 2012 study led by Columbia University said pregnant women exposed to chlorpyrifos can give birth to children with low IQs and other problems.
California officials have been in the process of tightening regulations for chlorpyrifos usage in the state. Hawaii’s legislature banned the pesticide in agriculture in June.