Last week ended on a high note for farmworker advocates, when Corteva – the biggest producer of the pesticide Chlorpyrifos – made the surprising announcement that they will cease production by the end of 2020. In “Death by Chlorpyrifos”, we described how this particular pesticide has been harming the brains of farmworker children, as well as all consumers of produce still tainted with the chemical. Closely related to sarin gas – a volatile and deadly nerve agent used in wartime and in several terrorist attacks – this organophosphate has had devastating effects on human health, and not just on the pests it aimed to kill. But, despite countless studies demonstrating its obvious dangers, it remained on the market for 55 years. That’s more than half a century to wreak havoc on the vulnerable brains and bodies of children.
Registered as a pesticide by DOW Chemicals in 1965, chlorpyrifos was initially heralded as a convenient way to rid one’s home of common pests like termites, ants, bees, etc. It wasn’t used in agriculture until the mid-1970’s, when commercial agricultural products were developed for alfalfa, cotton, peach trees, corn, and a host of other crops. Its use continued to grow, until, in the late 1900’s, it was the most commonly-used pesticide in the United States.
That started to change with the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, which required that pesticides be proven safe and not harmful to children’s health (a “reasonable certainty of no harm”) before they could be registered. A 1993 scientific report titled “Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children” is said to be the catalyst for the new law.
Incredibly, FQPA was voted on unanimously by members of Congress, then signed into law by President Bill Clinton on August 3, 1996. It required a re-assessment of all registered pesticides by the EPA, which the agency completed over the next ten years. Four years later, it was determined that chlorpyrifos could not meet this new standard, and so residential use of the chemical ground to a halt in 2000, with registrants of chlorpyrifos entering voluntarily into an agreement with EPA to “eliminate, phase out, and modify certain uses.”
But, aside from the tomato crop, chlorpyrifos’s many agricultural applications continued. Purported by the manufacturer to be safe, chlorpyrifos nevertheless posed a huge risk, not only to farmworker children, but to all children, through the residues left on the fruits and vegetables that all Americans were eating.
Not satisfied with a half-victory, advocates for worker rights and environmental safety put pressure on EPA to ban all uses of chlorpyrifos. In 2007, Pesticide Action Network of North America and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a petition with the EPA demanding that it “ban the pesticide or issue final rulings on their acceptable levels.”[i] Under President Obama, the agency did so, concluding that the chemical did not meet the standard of a “reasonable certainty of no harm.” Unfortunately, that decision was reversed under President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
This abrupt reversal was a big disappointment for public and environmental health advocates, who continued to take the federal government to court over its many administrative delays and overall failure to protect Americans from chlorpyrifos. Meanwhile, various states issued bans, starting with Hawaii in 2018, followed by California in 2019, then New York, and, most recently, a partial ban in Washington state.
The writing for the end of chlorpyrifos seemed to be on the wall – and then came this latest development on Thursday, February 6th. Jennifer Sass, senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, hailed Corteva’s decision as “an eventual forgone conclusion” in light of chlorpyrifos’s obvious toxicity. According to the Associated Press, Sass said, “this is a victory for our kids, farmworkers and rural communities nationwide”. According to EcoWatch, 5 million pounds of chlorpyrifos are applied to crops in the U.S. every year. When Corteva stops making it in 2021, that total amount will decrease significantly, and with it, the threat “to the developing brains and nervous systems of children and fetuses, such as learning disabilities, ADHD-like symptoms, and reductions in IQ.”
Of course, as advocates, we are always wondering, what’s the catch? Well, since there is no federal ban of the chemical, generic versions of chlorpyrifos will remain on the market. Also, Corteva will continue selling their product world-wide. After all, they claimed that their decision not to make chlorpyrifos in the US was purely a business calculation, as sales had dropped off precipitously. In other countries where chlorpyrifos’s dangers are not as well-publicized, they can sell more of it, harming children in those areas, instead.
Also, we have to ask ourselves, what will move in to fill the void left by chlorpyrifos in US agriculture? Chlorpyrifos itself was seen as a safer alternative to Chlordane, which had been proven to cause cancer and was banned in 1988. Will there be a new chemical developed that does greater harm? Not to mention, Chlorpyrifos is far from the only harmful pesticide on the market. Many others remain, such as dicamba, atrazine, and glyphosate. And then there’s the black market for pesticides, where illegal, toxic chemicals continue to be bought and sold in countries with porous borders and lax enforcement. According to the Washington Post, “as climate change and increasing demand for food accelerate the need for pesticides, [this black market is] getting bigger and more violent.”
Therefore, AFOP Health & Safety will continue educating farmworkers on how to stay safe when working among and near these chemicals. We call on all advocates to maintain their vigilance for anything threatening farmworkers, public health, and the environment – not just in your own backyard, but everywhere.