(Ohlone Elementary School is shown surrounded by agricultural fields. File photo by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)
SEATTLE, Wash. — A federal court ruled Thursday that the Environmental Protection Agency must enact a nationwide ban of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a move that comes as vindication to activists who have long sought to eliminate it.
The ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gives the EPA 60 days to cancel all registrations for the pesticide, and to revoke “tolerances” that set standards for human exposure.
The ruling came 16 months after EPA chief Scott Pruitt refused to ban chlorpyrifos, ignoring science from his own department that found even minimum exposure to the widely-used pesticide poses unreasonable danger to humans, particularly pregnant women and children.
Pruitt resigned in July amid an unrelated ethics scandal.
If the Trump administration wants to appeal the ruling, it must do so in the U.S. Supreme Court, said Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR) Co-Director Mark Weller.
“The Trump administration was wrong when they refused to follow their own scientists’ recommendations,” Weller said. “This is a good day for science.”
If the EPA follows through on the court’s order, growers statewide would have to find an alternative to chlorpyrifos, said Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo.
In Santa Cruz County, however, farmers have already reduced their usage of the pesticide, he said.
“Some of our growers are already looking at alternatives,” he said.
In November 2016, the EPA called chlorpyrifos unsafe to use in any amount. The agency outlawed home use of chlorpyrifos in 2000.
But in April 2017, the agency refused to ban the substance outright, instead allowing it to be used on agriculture fields across the U.S.
Opposition to the pesticide stems in part from a study by UC Berkeley, which shows that exposure even in small doses by pregnant women can cause lifelong problems for their babies, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, reduced IQ, decreased lung function and delayed motor development.
A study by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) shows that people can be exposed to the pesticide on food, which remains despite washing, and from contaminated water. It can also drift as far as a half-mile from where it is applied.
According to Weller, California farmers in 2016 used more than 900,000 pounds on about 80 crops, including citrus, nuts, apples and broccoli.
It is unclear how the EPA will respond to the ruling.
In a prepared statement, the agency said it is “reviewing the decision.”
The EPA has questioned the science behind Thursday’s ruling, saying it came largely from a single study by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH), which has not been peer-reviewed or reproduced.
“The Columbia Center’s data underlying the court’s assumptions remains inaccessible and has hindered the agency’s ongoing process to fully evaluate the pesticide using the best available, transparent science,” said EPA spokesperson Michael Abboud.
But according to Weller, the CCCEH study was one of more than 100 reports that were used by the EPA under President Barack Obama’s administration when it suggested the pesticide be banned.
In addition, the EPA has considered more than 300 similar reports in two decades, which show similar results about chlorpyrifos, Weller said.
The DPR last month concluded that the current use of chlorpyrifos in California poses an unreasonable risk, Weller said.
“If the EPA is concerned about the Columbia study, it still has several reports to draw from,” Weller said.
Department of Pesticide Regulation spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe said the agency is following the case.
The decision will mean no immediate change for California farmers, Fadipe said.
In November, the DPR issued a series of regulations prohibiting pesticide use within a quarter-mile of schools, weekdays between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Additionally, fumigant pesticides can’t be used within a 36-hour period before a school day, and growers must inform public schools, day-care facilities and county agriculture commissioners about plans to use pesticides within the buffer zones.
Fadipe said that an independent scientific review panel recently agreed with the DPR that chlorpyrifos can be designated a “toxic air contaminant,” clearing the way for the department to impose additional restrictions on the pesticide.
The DPR now plans to hold public forums and work with other scientists, and could announce new restrictions as early as December.
Fadipe added that the use of the pesticide has “plummeted” in the last decade.
“DPR will continue to follow our processes to ensure that we are among the most protective states in the USA when it comes to the use of this pesticide,” she said. “And our director Brian Leahy is constantly urging growers to find an alternative to chlorpyrifos.”