Chlorpyrifos is one of the most toxic agricultural chemicals. But the last administration stopped a move to ban its use. Now a U.S. court steps in to give the EPA a directive, and a very short timeframe to act.
How Toxic is Chlorpyrifos and Who is at Risk?
Dow Chemical patented chlorpyrifos as a pesticide in 1966. It is an organophosphate chemical. Farmers, groundskeepers, and exterminators have used it for 65 years. (To go straight to what you can do to protect yourself and influence the EPA’s decision, scroll down to “How Can You Protect Your Loved Ones from Toxic Chemicals?”)
It kills insects by inhibiting the essential enzyme activity that enables the messages that travel through nerve cells. Chlorpyrifos drifts through the air and poisons the lungs of people exposed to it. It also spreads its poison to people by clinging to fruits and vegetables and grass.
Tragically, it has proven to cause developmental damage even with a small exposure in fetuses and small children. Acute exposure can cause neuromuscular symptoms, seizures, lung failure, paralysis, and death. It is also toxic to bees and crustaceans.
How Do You Get Exposed to Chlorpyrifos?
Despite this toxicity, farmers, exterminators, and grounds keepers in the U.S. have used chlorpyrifos to control pests on
- fruit and nut trees
- Brussel sprouts
- broccoli and cauliflower
- golf courses
- termite control
- roach and ant traps
What Other Countries Have Banned It?
Many countries banned this toxin. And yet, the U.S. has continued using it to the present day. Here is the timeline.
- Singapore in 2009
- South Africa in 2010
- Denmark 2012
- European Union 2020
Why Hasn’t the U.S. Banned Chlorpyrifos?
Dow Chemical has lobbied hard for many years to keep chlorpyrifos on the market in the United States. The company asserts it is safe for use. And yet, the EPA has not been able to find a safe threshold of exposure. In fact, Dow paid a $2 million fine to the State of New York for claiming its product was safe. Here’s a quick timeline.
- 1989 OSHA set a maximum exposure level but it was later reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals.
- 2000 The industry reached an agreement with the EPA to voluntarily restrict the use of chlorpyrifos near children.
- 2003 Dow Chemical paid a fine to NY State for claiming the chemical was safe.
- 2007 The Pesticide Action Network and Natural Resource Defense Council appealed to the EPA to ban chlorpyrifos.
- 2015 A U.S. Court of Appeals told the EPA to ban chlorpyrifo, stating the EPA had failed to show the chemical met legal safety requirements.
- 2016 The EPA decided to ban the chemical despite Dow Chemical’s persistent claims that it is safe and critical to growers.
- 2017 The Trump Administration’s Sec. of Agriculture Scott Pruit revoked the EPA ban. Pruitt claimed he had not met with Dow Chemical executives prior to revoking the ban. But it was later revealed he had met with them dozens of times and specifically told them he would revoke the ban.
- 2017 California adds chlorpyrifos to its Prop 65 list of toxic chemicals and set minimum exposure levels at .025PPB. The American Academy of Pediatrics protests the Administrations lack of movement on the ban, stating the chemical’s well-established danger to children.
- 2018 The U.S. Court of Appeals told the EPA to ban chlorpyrifos within 60 days but the ruling was appealed by the Trump Administration.
- 2020 California banned chlorpyrifos. Thailand bans the use of chlorpyrifos and paraquat and moves to ban imported foods grown by farmers using these chemcals. The US and Brazil appeal to the WTA to force Thailand to reverse its ban. it completely within 60 days.
Who’s to Blame for the Poisoning of America?
The history of chlorpyrifos is a lesson in the danger to people and our planet of taking on one toxic chemical at a time. Dow Chemical introduced chlorpyrifos to the market over 55 years ago. It’s been poisoning fetuses, children, and adults ever since. As far back as 1989 the U.S. government showed public concern over the chemical as seen in the OSHA exposure limits. And twenty years ago the industry publicly admitted it was toxic to children by agreeing to usage restrictions.
Yet, lawsuit after lawsuit, research evidence be damned, court orders disregarded, the EPA failed to protect the people and country it is chartered to protect. And, yes, the delay of the ban over the last five years is due to direct and malicious actions of the Trump Administration. But a handful of other Administrations — Republican and Democrat — could have banned this poison years ago and did not.
What Can We Learn about Glyphosate from the Chlorpyrifos Story?
The lesson is clear. We cannot achieve a cleaner world fighting one chemical at a time. As much as we know some chemicals like glyphosate and chlorpyrifos are perhaps more toxic or pervasive than some others, we cannot cherry pick the handful of worst offenders and try to pick them off one by one. There simply isn’t enough time (unless you think a standard of 50 or more years from introduction to ban to be your measure of success). We must get to the core of the problem.
- Companies must prove chemicals are safe before they are allowed to introduce them on the market.
- Consumers should have a right to know if there is toxic residue on their food.
- Because of their position between farms and consumers, brands, suppliers, and distributors should be the intermediary that requires testing from the farms. They also should test their final product for toxic residue and provide complete transparency to consumers. Finally, that transparency to consumers has to be provided in an actionable format — at a time when they are making purchasing or eating decisions. Consumers should not have to contact a customer service person to request the information.
How Can You Protect Your Loved Ones from Toxic Chemicals?
- Buy organic whenever possible but especially produce that you eat that cannot be peeled.
- Soak your produce in a solution of water with a bit of apple cider vinegar or baking soda or both.
- Buy from companies you trust. Avoid cheap food. Cheap can mean the farmer used a lot of chemicals to increase their yield so they can keep prices low.
- Ask brands you love to test their food and make the results publicly available.
- Contact the EPA and ask them to ban chlorpyrifos and to require chemical companies to prove their products are safe before they can be used. Consider tweeting them at https://twitter.com/epa.
Does ZEGO Test for Chlorpyrifos?
Yes! We do and have since we introduced our purity testing back in 2018. You can see our results on our pesticide panels for each product on our Food Safety tab on our website, or by scanning the QR code on any of our packages. This is exactly the type of testing and transparency all brands should commit to. Why? Because if consumers aren’t informed about the prevalence of toxic residue in our agriculture system and on their food, they won’t have the information and inspiration to demand better. And, better is what we have to strive for every day.
Some of the information in this blog came from Wikipedia, which has extensive information on the history and toxicity of this chemical.
Colleen Kavanagh is the founder and CEO of ZEGO, a company that seeks to inspire changes in the food system so it better nourishes all people and our planet. She spent 20 years working to better nourish low-income children through improved public policies and programs, working for Congressman George Miller in Washington, DC and various anti-hunger nonprofits. She founded the nonprofit www.abettercourse.org. In 2013, she decided the only way to better nourish the most vulnerable is to leverage consumer demand through the marketplace to regenerating the food system and protect the most vulnerable. And that, lead to her starting ZEGO.
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