At the end of this year, farmers will no longer be allowed to use chlorpyrifos in a move that Governor Gavin Newsom characterized as a “big win for children, workers and public health in California.”
Chlorpyrifos is widely used on popular crops such as walnuts, almonds, citrus fruits, cotton and alfalfa. It’s inexpensive, which has made it incredibly popular, with millions of pounds of it applied to crops across America each year. According to the Los Angeles Times, California is the biggest user of the chemical, with 900,000 pounds of it spread across crops in the state in 2017 alone.
It is an organophosphate insecticide, which means it kills insects by blocking an enzyme they contain, causing them to have convulsions and die. As you might imagine, these insecticides are also toxic to humans. It’s estimated that more than 75 percent of Americans have traces of the chemical in their bodies, and this is mostly due to food residues. Not surprisingly, people who work or live near farms or agricultural fields have significantly higher levels.
Studies have linked chlorpyrifos to smaller infant birth weight and size. It has also been shown to cause developmental delays, lower scores on standard development tests, and brain changes that are noticeable on MRIs.
However, some of the most convincing studies are those that showed chlorpyrifos led to anxiety, hyperactivity and decreased learning in rats, even at very low doses. The results were so similar to those seen in human epidemiological studies that it has left little question about the chemical's safety.
Environmental regulators in California have long been trying to ban chlorpyrifos. The pesticide was already designated a toxic air contaminant that causes harm to the respiratory tract when inhaled as well as damage to skin. This designation enabled the new agreement to include a ban on spraying the chemical aerially.
California took matters into its own hands after efforts to get the pesticide banned at the federal level failed. Hawaii has already banned it, and New York is phasing in bans of its own. Oregon also recently passed a bill – over the objections of farmers’ groups – phasing out the insecticide completely by the year 2022.
The European Union has also banned the use of chlorpyrifos. The ban went into effect earlier this year after the European Food Safety Authority found that there was no safe exposure level for the chemical, which was used on corn, fruit and other crops on the continent.
As part of the agreement in California, the state is providing $5.6 million to help manufacturers of pesticides develop a safer alternative.
Not long after the ban, the primary manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, Corteva (formerly Dow Agrosciences), announced that it will end production of the chemical by the end of this year. A statement from the company read: "Due to this reduced demand, Corteva has made the strategic business decision to phase out our production of chlorpyrifos in 2020." However, other companies are still producing it.
The ban is certainly a huge victory for Californians, and it is hoped that other states will follow suit with bans of their own to protect their residents from this dangerous chemical. Unfortunately, there are still many highly dangerous pesticides in use throughout the world that also need to be banned. A study last year found that the U.S. allows the use of 85 pesticides that have been banned in the European Union, Brazil or China, including paraquat, 2,4-DB, and dichlobenil, proving that the battle is far from over.
Sources for this article include: