[Marxism] A Strong Case Against a Pesticide Does Not Faze E.P.A. Under Trump

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 16 07:27:48 MDT 2017

(With a president functioning as if he were in the movie "Idiocracy", it 
comes as no surprise that his EPA director overrides his own scientists 
to allow a pesticide to be used that causes children to have lower IQ 

NY Times, May 16 2017
A Strong Case Against a Pesticide Does Not Faze E.P.A. Under Trump

Some of the most compelling evidence linking a widely used pesticide to 
developmental problems in children stems from what scientists call a 
“natural” experiment.

Though in this case, there was nothing natural about it.

Chlorpyrifos (pronounced klor-PYE-ruh-fahs) had been used to control 
bugs in homes and fields for decades when researchers at Columbia 
University began studying the effects of pollutants on pregnant mothers 
from low-income neighborhoods. Two years into their study, the pesticide 
was removed from store shelves and banned from home use, because animal 
research had found it caused brain damage in baby rats.

Pesticide levels dropped in the cord blood of many newborns joining the 
study. Scientists soon discovered that those with comparatively higher 
levels weighed less at birth and at ages 2 and 3, and were more likely 
to experience persistent developmental delays, including hyperactivity 
and cognitive, motor and attention problems. By age 7, they had lower IQ 

The Columbia study did not prove definitively that the pesticide had 
caused the children’s developmental problems, but it did find a 
dose-response effect: The higher a child’s exposure to the chemical, the 
stronger the negative effects.

That study was one of many. Decades of research into the effects of 
chlorpyrifos strongly suggests that exposure at even low levels may 
threaten children. A few years ago, scientists at the Environmental 
Protection Agency concluded that it should be banned altogether.

Yet chlorpyrifos is still widely used in agriculture and routinely 
sprayed on crops like apples, oranges, strawberries and broccoli. 
Whether it remains available may become an early test of the Trump 
administration’s determination to pare back environmental regulations 
frowned on by the industry and to retreat from food-safety laws, 
possibly provoking another clash with the courts.

In March, the new chief of the E.P.A., Scott Pruitt, denied a 
10-year-old petition brought by environmental groups seeking a complete 
ban on chlorpyrifos. In a statement accompanying his decision, Mr. 
Pruitt said there “continue to be considerable areas of uncertainty” 
about the neurodevelopmental effects of early life exposure to the 

Even though a court last year denied the agency’s request for more time 
to review the scientific evidence, Mr. Pruitt said the agency would 
postpone a final determination on the pesticide until 2022. The agency 
was “returning to using sound science in decision-making — rather than 
predetermined results,” he added.

Agency officials have declined repeated requests for information 
detailing the scientific rationale for Mr. Pruitt’s decision.

Lawyers representing Dow and other pesticide manufacturers have also 
been pressing federal agencies to ignore E.P.A. studies that have found 
chlorpyrifos and other pesticides are harmful to endangered plants and 

A statement issued by Dow Chemical, which manufactures the pesticide, 
said: “No pest control product has been more thoroughly evaluated, with 
more than 4,000 studies and reports examining chlorpyrifos in terms of 
health, safety and environment.”

A Baffling Order

Mr. Pruitt’s decision has confounded environmentalists and research 
scientists convinced that the pesticide is harmful.

Farm workers and their families are routinely exposed to chlorpyrifos, 
which leaches into ground water and persists in residues on fruits and 
vegetables, even after washing and peeling, they say.

Mr. Pruitt’s order contradicted the E.P.A.’s own exhaustive scientific 
analyses, which had been reviewed by industry experts and modified in 
response to their concerns.

In 2015, an agency report concluded that infants and children in some 
parts of the country were being exposed to unsafe amounts of the 
chemical in drinking water, and to a dangerous byproduct. Agency 
researchers could not determine any level of exposure that was safe.

An updated human health risk assessment compiled by the E.P.A. in 
November found that health problems were occurring at lower levels of 
exposure than had previously been believed harmful.

Infants, children, young girls and women are exposed to dangerous levels 
of chlorpyrifos through diet alone, the agency said. Children are 
exposed to levels up to 140 times the safety limit.

“The science was very complicated, and it took the E.P.A. a long time to 
figure out how to deal with what the Columbia study was saying,” said 
Jim Jones, who ran the chemical safety unit at the agency for five 
years, leaving after President Trump took office.

The evidence that the pesticide causes neurodevelopmental damage to 
children “is not a slam dunk, the way it is for some of the most 
well-understood chemicals,” Mr. Jones conceded. Still, he added, “very 
few chemicals fall into that category.”

But the law governing the regulation of pesticides used on foods doesn’t 
require conclusive evidence for regulators to prohibit potentially 
dangerous chemicals. It errs on the side of caution.

The Food Quality Protection Act set a new safety standard for pesticides 
and fungicides when it was passed in 1996, requiring the E.P.A. to 
determine that a chemical can be used with “a reasonable certainty of no 

The act also required the agency to take the unique vulnerabilities of 
young children into account and to use a wide margin of safety when 
setting tolerance levels.

Children may be exposed to multiple pesticides that have the same toxic 
mechanism of action at the same time, the law noted. They’re also 
exposed through routes other than food, like drinking water.

Environmental groups returned last month to the United States Court of 
Appeals for the Ninth District, asking that the E.P.A. be ordered to ban 
the pesticide. The court has already admonished the agency for what it 
called “egregious” delays in responding to a petition filed by the 
groups in 2007.

The E.P.A. responded on April 28, saying it had met its deadline when 
Mr. Pruitt denied the petition.

Erik D. Olson, director of the health program at Natural Resources 
Defense Council, one of the groups petitioning the E.P.A. to ban 
chlorpyrifos, disagreed.

“The E.P.A. has twice made a formal determination that this chemical is 
not safe,” Mr. Olson said. “The agency cannot just decide not to act on 
that. They have not put out a new finding of safety, which is what they 
would have to do to allow it to continue to be used.”

Devastating Effects

Chlorpyrifos belongs to a class of pesticides called organophosphates, a 
diverse group of compounds that includes nerve agents like sarin gas.

It acts by blocking an enzyme called cholinesterase, which causes a 
toxic buildup of acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter that 
carries signals from nerve cells to their targets.

Acute poisoning with the pesticide can cause nausea, dizziness, 
convulsions and even death in humans, as well as animals.

But the scientific question has been whether humans, and especially 
small children, are affected by chronic low-level exposures that don’t 
cause any obvious immediate effects — and if so, at what threshold these 
exposures cause harm.

Scientists have been studying the impact of chlorpyrifos on brain 
development in young rats under controlled laboratory conditions for 
decades. These studies have shown that the chemical has devastating 
effects on the brain.

“Even at exquisitely low doses, this compound would stop cells from 
dividing and push them instead into programmed cell death,” said 
Theodore Slotkin, a scientist at Duke University Medical Center, who has 
published dozens of studies on rats exposed to chlorpyrifos shortly 
after birth.

In the animal studies, Dr. Slotkin was able to demonstrate a clear 
cause-and effect relationship. It didn’t matter when the young rats were 
exposed; their developing brains were vulnerable to its effects 
throughout gestation and early childhood, and exposure led to structural 
abnormalities, behavioral problems, impaired cognitive performance and 
depressive-like symptoms.

And there was no safe window for exposure. “There doesn’t appear to be 
any period of brain development that is safe from its effects,” Dr. 
Slotkin said.

Manufacturers say there is no proof low-level exposures to chlorpyrifos 
causes similar effects in humans. Carol Burns, a consultant to Dow 
Chemical, said the Columbia study pointed to an association between 
exposure just before birth and poor outcomes, but did not prove a 
cause-and-effect relationship.

Studies of children exposed to other organophosphate pesticides, 
however, have also found lower IQ scores and attention problems after 
prenatal exposure, as well as abnormal reflexes in infants and poor lung 
function in early childhood.

“When you weigh the evidence across the different studies that have 
looked at this, it really does pretty strongly point the finger that 
organophosphate pesticides as a class are of significant concern to 
child neurodevelopment,” said Stephanie M. Engel, an associate professor 
of epidemiology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Engel has published research showing that exposure to 
organophosphates during pregnancy may impair cognitive development in 

But Dr. Burns argues that other factors may be responsible for cognitive 
impairment, and that it is impossible to control for the myriad factors 
in children’s lives that affect health outcomes. “It’s not a criticism 
of a study — that’s the reality of observational studies in human 
beings,” she said. “Poverty, inadequate housing, poor social support, 
maternal depression, not reading to your children — all these kinds of 
things also ultimately impact the development of the child, and are 

While animal studies can determine causality, it’s difficult to do so in 
human studies, said Brenda Eskenazi, director of the Center for 
Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of 
California, Berkeley.

“The human literature will never be as strong as the animal literature, 
because of the problems inherent in doing research on humans,” she said.

With regard to organophosphates, she added, “the animal literature is 
very strong, and the human literature is consistent, but not as strong.”

If the E.P.A. will not end use of the pesticide, consumer preferences may.

In California, the nation’s breadbasket, use of chlorpyrifos has been 
declining, Dr. Eskenazi said. Farmers have responded to rising demand 
for organic produce and to concerns about organophosphate pesticides.

She is already concerned about what chemicals will replace it. While 
organophosphates and chlorpyrifos in particular have been scrutinized, 
newer pesticides have not been studied so closely, she said.

“We know more about chlorpyrifos than any other organophosphate; that 
doesn’t mean it’s the most toxic;” she said, adding, “There may be 
others that are worse offenders.”

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