On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doubled-back on its course to ban a chemical used in pesticides called chlorpyrifos. The move to reverse its earlier decision — which was made during the Obama administration — is a sign of change in the agency's approach to toxic chemicals under the new EPA head, Scott Pruitt.
Chlorpyrifos, previously found in bug spray, is known to attack the nervous system of not just insects, but humans too — causing an array of symptoms like dizziness, vomiting, and diarrhea. It's been banned from household use for more than a decade, but it's still used by farmers on citrus trees, strawberries, broccoli, and cauliflower. The residue may be found on produce in supermarkets.
"Based on the harm that this pesticide causes, the EPA cannot, consistent with the law, allow it in our food," said Patti Goldman, a lawyer with the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, citing a number of studies that have demonstrated the harmful effects of the pesticide in humans.
Wednesday's decision was the EPA's response to a federal judge's order for a final decision on the matter. That order had been prompted by petitions from environmental groups, including Earthjustice, to ban chlorpyrifos. The EPA previously proposed a ban on chlorpyrifos back in 2015.
A Political and Scientific Issue
The law against pesticides doesn't mince words: it strictly prohibits chemicals that cannot demonstrate "a reasonable certainty that no harm will result" to consumers or anyone else exposed to these pesticides. Still, as far the fate of chlorpyrifos is still subject to debate — despite evidence pointing to its health dangers.
Some of that evidence against chlorpyrifos came from a study by researchers at Columbia University who measured the levels of this chemical present in the umbilical cords of newborn babies. The study was part of a series done on mothers and their babies who were exposed to several chemicals and showed that chlorpyrifos was more dangerous than previously thought.
Jim Jones, a former assistant administrator of the EPA who was in-charge of pesticide regulation, admitted that the EPA struggled with translating these findings into a prediction of risks for chlorpyrifos residues on food. "But once we cracked that nut, and you had the risk evaluated and in front of you, it became, in my view, a very straightforward decision, with not a lot of ambiguity in terms of what you would do," he told NPR. "I just don't know what basis they would have to deny the petition [to ban chlorpyrifos], given the vast scientific record that the EPA's got right now."
One thing is clear: issues like this prove that politics and science are becoming more and more intertwined. It seems that would be the natural progression of things, as there are a number of issues — vaccines, stem cells, artificial intelligence (AI) development, climate change, and even nuclear weapons to name a few — that require policies backed by sound and solid, evidence-based science.