After almost 15 years of squabbling over whether the federal Environmental Protection Agency should ban the nerve gas pesticide chlorpyrifos from fields and groves in California and elsewhere, a federal appeals court has now ruled that it must issue a ban within 60 days.
President Trump’s administration appears all but certain to appeal that ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, either taking the case straight to the U.S. Supreme Court or to an 11-judge “en banc” panel of judges from the same circuit that ruled the pesticide must go.
But despite any delays, the handwriting is clearly on the wall for the California farms that use more than 1 million pounds of the chemical on everything from broccoli and melons to nuts and oranges. The pesticide is used most heavily in Kern, Tulare and Monterey counties.
It gives the lie to the old saying that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” as there are proven links between this noxious substance and neurodevelopmental disorders affecting the brain and nervous system, including autism and intellectual and behavioral disabilities. Small children are most affected.
This product, primarily manufactured by the Dow Chemical Co., which once produced the infamous chemical weapon napalm, is not your ordinary pest killer. It is an organophosphate very similar to and based upon the nerve gas Zyklon B used by Nazi Germany to execute six million Jews and eight million other victims in its notorious death camps.
If it were still called by its Nazi name, there would be no tolerance for using this chemical.
But because it’s effective and has a complicated-sounding name in today’s use, many farmers embrace it. Never mind that in May 2017, 50 farm workers exposed to its spraying near Bakersfield suffered immediate symptoms like vomiting, nausea and fainting. No one knows what long-term effects the spray might have on them, and that’s just one example.
Trump’s disgraced former EPA director Scott Pruitt knew most of this before he ruled in early 2017 that use of chlorpyrifos could continue nationally – just weeks after a lengthy private meeting with Dow’s chairman.
Now it’s a sure bet the EPA will appeal the court ruling, delaying a ban indefinitely.
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But the decision still lets farmers know they can’t keep using this stuff forever. Even if Trump wins reelection in 2020, his time in office will be up no later than early 2025 and given the history of this pesticide and the strength of the negative evidence, its days are surely numbered.
And farmers have alternatives. They can fight insects with botanically sourced pesticides including cinnamon oil and garlic oil. State officials report some have already switched to another family of insecticides known as neonicitinoids. One problem with that family: It can threaten bees, even if it’s easier on people.
Of course, many farms using chlorpyrifos are owned by the same people and companies who have long argued that water distribution in California favors fish over people, particularly resenting protection of the silvery, minnow-like Delta smelt.
Are these same folks now going to argue for favoring bees over people?
It’s also true that the former Barack Obama administration dragged its feet on the chlorpyrifos issue so long that in a 2015 hearing by a Ninth Circuit panel, longtime appellate Judge Wallace Tashima scolded an EPA lawyer about the eight years the agency had then worked on a possible ban. “I think this is a pretty miserable record,” said Tashima.
And a scientific panel of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment earlier this year voted unanimously to place chlorpyrifos on the list of dangerous substances under Proposition 65 in 1986. That group included professors from Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC Davis, along with a representative of the pharmaceutical firm Genentech.
All this makes it plain spraying of chlorpyrifos will end pretty soon.
Farmers who don’t recognize this now, especially after the appellate decision, could be left struggling to find a substitute when the inevitable ban arrives. They’re better off if they act now, getting ahead of the game and maybe even making hay by advertising safer food products.