By Johnathan Hettinger/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
The Trump administration in recent days took steps toward continuing to allow the use of two popular pesticides linked to developmental issues in children.
In both cases, the agency weakened its metrics for assessing human health protections.
On Sept. 18, the EPA approved the continued use of atrazine, the second most commonly sprayed herbicide in the United States. Atrazine, whose main manufacturer is Syngenta, is banned in more than 35 countries, including the European Union, because of its links to human health, which include reproductive issues, an increased chance of birth defects, a loss of fertility in men and a potential to cause cancer. A 2018 Environmental Working Group analysis of drinking water found atrazine in the tap water of more than 30 million people.
One week later, the EPA issued a new risk assessment for chlorpyrifos, reversing an earlier agency finding that the insecticide can harm brain development in children.
The recent assessment said the science about the pesticide’s links to neurodevelopment “remains unresolved.” The Obama administration banned chlorpyrifos in 2016 based on the earlier findings, but the ban was reversed in the first months of the Trump administration. Court challenges have required the EPA to make a final decision on chlorpyrifos’ continued use next month.
“Today’s decision is another example of the Trump Administration taking action in support of America’s farmers—one of our strongest allies in our mission to protect public health and the environment,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement. “The benefits of atrazine in agriculture are high, so these new protections give our nation’s farmers more clarity and certainty concerning proper use.”
The EPA trails behind other nations in regulating pesticides that are harmful to human health. Each year, more than 300 million pounds of pesticides that are banned in the European Union are sprayed in the United States.
A Consumer Reports analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture pesticide residue data found that even eating small amounts of nonorganic foods like green beans, peaches and potatoes can pose long-term health risks to children.
With Trump admin reversing chlorpyrifos ban, states taking matters into own hands
The new risk assessment paves the way for the EPA to allow continued use of chlorpyrifos. The agency is expected to make a final decision on the insecticide’s continued use next month.
Chlorpyrifos has been the subject of a yearslong legal battle, after the Obama administration banned the insecticide in 2016. However, the Trump administration reversed the rule in 2017, and after a successful court challenge by environmental and farmworker groups, the administration was forced to reevaluate its risk assessment.
The decisions continue a trend to weaken environmental safeguards in the federal government. The Trump administration has proposed a rule designed to limit epidemiological studies from being considered in environmental and public health regulations.
But the new rule does not allow the studies to be used unless the authors share the raw data, something they have said that they are willing to do, but has not been done, according to the New York Times.
“The EPA is ignoring decades of science by leading universities and in doing so, it’s neglecting its duty to protect children from pesticides,” said Patti Goldman, Earthjustice managing attorney, in a statement. “Ignoring the demonstrated harm to children doesn’t make chlorpyrifos safe, it just shows a commitment to keep a toxic pesticide in the market and in our food at all cost.”
In the absence of a federal rule, California, New York and Hawaii have all taken steps to ban chlorpyrifos because of its ability to cause brain damage in children.
Corteva, a main manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, has pledged to stop producing the insecticide, though other companies also make and sell the chemical.
Atrazine banned in Hawaii, other territories
Atrazine is known to persist in water, which can cause human health issues and issues for endangered species. It is linked to reproductive issues in both humans and animals. Earlier this year, the Trump administration, citing COVID-19, suspended water monitoring for atrazine, which is found in the drinking water of one in 10 Americans.
The decision to allow the continued use of atrazine also allows a 50 percent increase in the allowable amount of herbicide found in surface water.
As part of the EPA’s decision to approve atrazine, the agency banned the continued use of the herbicide in Hawaii and other American territories including Puerto Rico and Guam. The agency also banned the use of the herbicide along roadsides and on conifers.
The decision was agreed to by Syngenta, the main manufacturer of the herbicide.
The agency is required to undertake a full risk assessment of how atrazine affects endangered plants and animals, under a settlement agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity and Pesticide Action Network. Eliminating tropical places that have higher biodiversity will help streamline that process.
Nathan Donley, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said that the likely outcome of that assessment would have been a ban in those areas.
“It’s being sold as industry is voluntarily doing this. There is nothing voluntarily about it. There is no way you can use atrazine in Hawaii and not be harming endangered species,” Donley said. “If you get rid of the label, you don’t have to deal with the negative PR around it killing endangered species.”
However, Donley said the agency should have banned atrazine overall and if it used typical safety measures, the herbicide likely would have been banned on lawns and turf. The EPA used a Syngenta-created model that resulted in a lower level of toxicity in humans and also did not use typical safety precautions required under the Food Quality Protection Act, Donley said.
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