Posted on June 17, 2017 in The Monterey Herald
By Cesar Lara, Guest commentary
The agricultural pesticide chlorpyrifos is a health threat to tens of thousands of Monterey County residents who work in the fields, as well as work or live near fields, including many dozens of our schools. Chlorpyrifos, used mostly as a component of Dow Agro Sciences’ Lorsban product, is a drift-prone insecticide that can also harm humans’ brains and nervous systems. It is especially dangerous for children.
Prenatal exposure can cause lowered IQ, behavioral issues and breathing difficulty, according to numerous studies, many done in the Salinas Valley by the UC Berkeley team known as CHAMACOS. One of the CHAMACOS scientists, Dr. Brenda Eskenazi, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Environment Research and Children’s Health, has said that chlorpyrifos and its larger group of organophosphate pesticides “are poison and we have enough doubt about their safety that we need to be reconsidering their use.” UC Davis’ Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto likens the exposure of children to chlorpyrifos and other neurotoxic chemicals to a “a chronic, silent epidemic.”
So why isn’t chlorpyrifos banned for agricultural use today? A quick summary of chlorpyrifos protections’ history helps to answer:
2000 — After alarm over scientific studies connecting prenatal chlorpyrifos exposure to brain damage, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began phasing it out for residential uses, but allowed continued agricultural use.
2015 — After 15 more years of research, including dozens of studies on Salinas Valley mothers and their children, and with a little push from the courts, the EPA announced its intention to ban chlorpyrifos for agricultural uses.
2016 — For a second time, and again with prodding from the courts, the EPA issued another study confirming its intention to ban chlorpyrifos by March 2017.
2017 — Donald Trump became president and appointed anti-science, anti-environmentalist Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.
March 2017 — You probably guessed this part: Pruitt ignored his own EPA scientists and declined to ban chlorpyrifos. He presented no science demonstrating that chlorpyrifos was safe.
What followed has been hopeful, yet concerning.
On the hopeful side, the people of California rose up on Cesar Chavez Day, March 31, to call on the governor to ban chlorpyrifos in California if the Trump administration wouldn’t. Led by Safe Ag Safe Schools, the United Farm Workers and the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, the big Salinas news conference and rally that day was one of several across the state. Thousands of ban-chlorpyrifos-letters to the governor later, on June 5, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra joined six other attorneys general in calling on Pruitt to listen to his scientists and ban chlorpyrifos in the U.S.
What’s concerning is that thus far the governmental body that serves to protect Californians from pesticide harms, the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), doesn’t appear to be listening to the scientists, the people or the attorney general when it comes to chlorpyrifos. The only public comment from the DPR that we can find is its spokesperson saying the state is not considering “an all-out ban.” DPR is acting as if it agrees with the actions of Scott Pruitt. How can that be?
The refusal to ban chlorpyrifos can’t justifiably be about “uncertain science.” Dr. Eskenazi points out: “We know more about chlorpyrifos than any other organophosphate.” The EPA’s November 2016 study found chlorpyrifos unsafe to use in any amount. The EPA found chlorpyrifos in the air at the Salinas airport at three times the federal health risk level. It also found chlorpyrifos residues on food at 140 times the children’s health risk level. Suppose the studies were off by 50 percent — by a half (an unheard of level of error!)? Are Californians OK with resulting threats of 1.5 and 70 times the federal health risk levels? Don’t think so.
Attorney General Becerra told the EPA’s Pruitt he should “put the health of the American people ahead of profits for companies.” And so should the state Department of Pesticide Regulation! Ban chlorpyrifos! In a battle of profits versus people — of Dow Agro Sciences versus the residents of California — we ask DPR the same question Florence Reese asked in her famous 1930s labor song: “Which side are you on?”
Cesar Lara is executive director of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council and member of Safe Ag Safe Schools.