The outcry would be enormous if large numbers of farmers began using Zyklon B as a pesticide on fruits and vegetables. That was the nerve gas Nazi Germany used to execute six million Jews and eight million other victims in their notorious death camps.
But there was little outcry except from environmentalists when the chief of President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency late in 2017 decided to let U.S. farms continue using another nerve gas invented by the Nazis on crops as diverse as nuts, apples, broccoli, melons, citrus, corn and soybeans.
German scientists didn’t invent the organophosphate chemical chlorpyrifos as a pesticide; rather they used it to gas Jews, gypsies and others they crammed into the airtight rear areas of mobile vans, a total of more than half a million people.
Trump is not alone in allowing manufacturers (primarily the Dow Chemical Co.) to keep selling the noxious substance to farmers and others. In fact, ex-President Barack Obama’s EPA didn’t move to prevent use of chlorpyrifos (pronounced klawr-peer-uh-fos). Obama’s EPA, though, did not claim the evidence against the substance was “insufficient” to declare it a health hazard, as current EPA head Scott Pruitt did.
But the EPA under Obama did drag its feet, so much that in a 2015 hearing of the Ninth Circuit federal Court of Appeals, longtime appellate Judge Wallace Tashima scolded an EPA lawyer about the eight years it had by then taken the agency to work on a possible chlorpyrifos ban. “I think this is a pretty miserable record,” Tashima opined.
The upshot is that chemical companies, not objective scientists, appear to control America’s pesticide regulation, no matter who is president.
That became clear when a scientific panel of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment last month voted unanimously to place the chemical on the list of dangerous substances under the 1986 Proposition 65. The panel included professors from UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis and Stanford, along with a scientist from the pharmaceutical firm Genentech.
Proposition 65 hazard warnings usually are found on gasoline pumps and tanker trucks, not grocery shelves. But California farms now use more than 1 million pounds of chlorpyrifos yearly, about one-fourth of the national total, even if it is at lower concentrations than what Nazi executioners employed. Just last May, 50 farm workers exposed to its spraying near Bakersfield immediately suffered symptoms like vomiting, nausea and fainting.
A 2016 EPA report found there are no safe uses of chlorpyrifos. All food exposure, the study said, is unsafe and there is no safe level in drinking water. The chemical is found at unsafe levels in schools, homes and widespread communities in agricultural areas like the Central Valley. In fields, unsafe levels continue 18 days after spraying.
Ironically, this chemical also puts the lie to the old saying that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” For apples are one of the crops where chlorpyrifos is most commonly used. In California, it is used most heavily in Kern, Tulare and Monterey counties.
A detailed 2016 study by Project TENDR, an independent group of academic scientists, found “Children in America…are at an unacceptably high risk of neurodevelopmental disorders that affect the brain and nervous system, including autism, intellectual disabilities and … behavioral disabilities.” The pesticide puts children at risk for lower IQ, attention deficit disorders and childhood tremors, among other problems.
Instead of using it, farmers could fight insect pests with botanically-sourced pesticides including cinnamon oil and garlic oil. State officials report some have switched to another family of insecticides known as neonicitinoids. One problem: These substances threaten bees, even if they are easier on people.
But no one has to make changes for now because of the Pruitt ruling. So children not only in California, but nationwide, may be endangered by eating foods their parents have good reason to believe healthy. That’s in part because studies show toxicity even at very low concentrations.
The bottom line: Obama may have been slow dealing with the chlorpyrifos problem. But Trump and his appointee Pruitt make it clear they don’t even see a problem.