The Dangerous Chemical You May Consume Every Day

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Chlorpyrifos is one of the most pervasive pesticides used in the U.S. It's also tied to nervous-system damage, learning disabilities, lower IQ, and memory problems — even at very low levels — in both animal and human studies.

Despite those facts, this spring Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency turned a blind eye to the science and punted on its own proposed ban. 

“Public health experts have been very concerned about chlorpyrifos for an incredibly long time,” says Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The residues show up regularly on apples, oranges, melons, berries, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach… the list goes down the page. It’s so widespread in our food supply, and it can contaminate drinking water and air near agricultural communities, that it’s in our bodies as a result.”

Just last November, after years of pressure from health and environmental groups, the EPA revised its own assessment of chlorpyrifos, deeming it unsafe at any level. The agency acknowledged that the amount of residue on food that it had previously considered safe was actually 140 times too high.

Under a court order filed back in 2007, the EPA was mandated to make a final decision on chlorpyrifos by March 31, 2017. But following the Trump administration mantra of curbing regulations that could impede business, new EPA director Scott Pruitt called the evidence on chlorpyrifos inclusive. He delayed the agency’s ruling on its safety until 2022.

This decision has stoked ire among scientists, medical professionals, environmentalists, and everyday consumers concerned about dangerous chemicals on their dinner tables. In April, NRDC and Pesticide Action Network sued the EPA, asking a U.S. district court to force the agency to rule on chlorpyrifos this year. “The EPA’s announcement didn’t meet the requirements of the law, not only because the agency refused to ban chlorpyrifos, but also because it refused to make an actual decision on safety,” Rotkin-Ellman says. “The EPA gave itself an extra extension when the court had given it a hard deadline of March 31.”

Although chlorpyrifos doesn’t linger in the body for years like lead or PCBs, the problem is our repeated contact with the pesticide. “Because it is used so extensively, most of us are exposed to it through food every single day,” says Rotkin-Ellman. “However, certain populations are more vulnerable to its effects. We are most worried about children and pregnant women, because science shows low levels can interfere with early brain development and increase the risk of cognitive and behavioral disorders later in life.”

While chronic low-level exposure is a threat to us all, larger doses of chlorpyrifos are a real risk for farm workers and people living near agriculture. Chlorpyrifos is known to drift into the air and get into the dust in homes in agricultural communities. In May, more than 50 California farm workers fell ill due to chlorpyrifos that had drifted from a nearby field. 

What's more, says Rotkin-Ellman, “it also shows up in the water supply of these areas," adding that the EPA analysis found drinking water contamination in regions of every single state. "Still, chlorpyrifos is not one of the contaminants monitored regularly by the EPA, which is one reason our concern is so high.” Beyond harming human health, she says this pesticide is also very toxic to aquatic ecosystems.

If you don’t live near farms, the best way to protect yourself and your family from chlorpyrifos is to choose organic produce whenever possible. Chlorpyrifos is not allowed to be used on organic crops. Rotkin-Ellman acknowledges that organic is typically more expensive than conventional produce, and says, “Do the best you can, even if it’s just one fruit that you’re able to buy organic. Choose the one that your family eats most often.”

Also make your voice heard on this issue by calling or writing letters to lawmakers. “Laws say we can’t use pesticides that harm people,” says Rotkin-Ellman. “We have agencies in charge of implementing those laws, yet they’ve made a decision to benefit chemical companies over parents and children. Policymakers need to hear the outrage.”