The EPA is backtracking on a ban put forward by the Obama administration on a common pesticide, chlorpyrifos, that research suggests can hinder the development of children’s brains.
The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, called the decision late Wednesday night. Pruitt framed the reversal as a form of “regulatory certainty” which would reassure the thousands of farmers who rely on the chemical to protect their crops.
“By reversing the previous administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making – rather than predetermined results,” Pruitt announced.
The use of chlorpyrifos is controversial. Some scientists at the US Department of Agriculture argue that the pesticide isn’t dangerous when used at the levels now authorized by the EPA. Some corporate farms and large businesses have spoken out against the Obama-era ban as well.
“Dow AgroSciences remains confident that authorized uses of chlorpyrifos products offer wide margins of protection for human health and safety,” said spokesman David Sousa. “This is the right decision for farmers who, in about 100 countries, rely on the effectiveness of chlorpyrifos to protect more than 50 crops.”
Scott Pruitt had earlier conducted a review of EPA decisions relating to the use of the pesticide. Upon completion, he concluded that “the science remains unresolved and that further evaluation is warranted to achieve greater certainty about possible neurodevelopmental effects of exposure.”
Laboratory studies have shown that exposure to chlorpyrifos can stunt the nervous system responses and development of mice and other small mammals. Surveys and field research geared towards gauging its effects on human suggest that pregnant mothers who come into contact with the chemical are more likely to have children born with irreversible mental disorders.
“We’ve banned pesticides before, and farmers have turned to safer alternatives,” said Scott Faber, who is the senior vice president of governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization. “The notion that we should continue to use a pesticide linked to autism because it’s needed to feed the world is an outrageous, ridiculous statement.”
Faber claimed that Dow AgroSciences itself manufactures safer alternatives to chlorpyrifos.
However, EPA officials under the Obama administration had expressed doubts that chlorpyrifos was as dangerous as some studies claimed.
“I agree very much with the scientific advisory panel,” said Dr. William Banner of the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Speaking of the studies most commonly used in anti-chlorpyrifos statements, he said that “they did not show any causal link. What they showed was an association.”
Nevertheless, the EPA said there was enough evidence of the chemical contributing to neurodevelopmental deficiencies to warrant its assessment of the pesticide. CNN reports that the EPA had “expected residues of chlorpyrifos on food crops exceed the safety standard under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.”
Much of the disconnect between the two opposing sides in the debate regards research methodologies and the difference between causation and correlation.