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EPA Should Stand Firm on Chlorpyrifos Decision

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt took the right stand in favor of sound science last March when he denied an activist petition to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos. At the time, he explained:

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.

But this battle isn’t over; the activists are continuing their irrational anti-pesticide crusade.

Most recently, the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who filed the original petition in 2007, appealed Pruitt’s decision before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court denied their appeal this week. However, the court only rejected it on procedural grounds, explaining that the greens must first file an administrative appeal with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If the EPA denies them, then they can take this battle back to the Ninth Circuit.

The Trump administration needs to stand firm behind Pruitt’s decision and be prepared to defend it.

Chlorpyrifos has safely helped farmers control crop-destroying pests for more than 50 years. Numerous comments to the EPA reveal that a ban would have serious adverse impacts on a wide range of crops, including citrus, alfalfa, almonds, corn, peanuts, cotton, soybeans, wheat, cranberries, and other products. The resulting increased crop damage would eventually affect consumers by raising the prices of these healthy foods.

While the benefits of Chlorpyrifos are many, its risk to human health is negligible. Decades of data and research strongly support the EPA’s registration of this chemical as safe for its intended uses.

Chlorpyrifos is currently undergoing a re-registration safety review. Each review can take a decade or more; federal law requires them every 15 years. So essentially, the EPA is continually reviewing pesticide safety. The PANNA/NRDC 2007 petition to ban chlorpyrifos would simply circumvent that process, pressuring the EPA into rashly banning the chemical based on junk-science claims about its risks.

Consider the history. PANNA and NRDC filed their petition barely a year after the EPA had completed a safety reregistration review for chlorpyrifos in 2006. When the agency started its regularly scheduled safety review of the chemical in 2009, it indicated it would answer the activists’ petition as part of its regular review.

But rather than allow the agency to do a thorough scientific evaluation, PANNA and NRDC launched a series of legal battles starting in 2010, filing motions and lawsuits to push the agency to make a quick decision. While capturing news attention with all their court cases, these activist groups hyped the issue to generate alarming news headlines in order to build political pressure on the agency to advance their agenda.

Despite those distractions, the EPA appeared to be moving toward denying the petition based on the best available science. Then in the last year of the Obama administration, the agency shifted gears. EPA pesticide program staff called a meeting of the agency’s Science Advisory Panel in April 2016 to consider a new plan. The EPA suddenly wanted to base its decision largely on a single epidemiological study.

Conducted by Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health, this study maintained that children whose mothers had higher exposures to the chemical—as measured in umbilical cords—were more likely to experience developmental delays or neurological problems such as autism.   

At the Science Advisory Board meeting, the scientists pointed out numerous problems with this approach, noting that reliance on a single study was “premature and possibly inappropriate.”

They also noted methodological problems with the study including the following:

  • Use of blood cord data as a measurement for exposure to infants was not appropriate;
  • The data were of poor quality;
  • The researchers did not follow government standards designed to ensure sound scientific practices;
  • The researchers failed to make key portions of their data available;
  • The study lacked transparency; and
  • Its biological plausibility was questionable because exposure was tiny—in the “parts per trillion.”  

Because the Science Advisory Panel was particularly critical of the blood-cord data, the agency decided to find another source of data to estimate exposure. To that end, the agency staff explained it its revised risk assessment that they contacted pest control firms and asked them for information on how these pesticides had been applied in homes more than a decade before the study’s timeframe. The agency reported that applicators indicated they had sprayed chlorpyrifos mostly in crevices to fight cockroaches.

Then EPA staff guesstimated—that is, they made data up to fit their predetermined conclusions—how much exposure the women in these homes might have had from such chemical use. It’s not clear how they could come up with good estimated exposures for each of the individuals in the study.

What’s even more perplexing is how agency officials could consider this data as better than the cord data; neither measurement seems compelling. In public comments, Ethan Mathews of the National Corn Growers Association rightly observed:

Overall, EPA appears to have selectively responded to the SAP’s comments in an attempt to put a supportive gloss to a pre-determined outcome, which is not supported by a full analysis of the SAP review.

Clearly, the EPA’s proposed ban was based on junk science and Pruitt was right to reject it. In regard to the recent court ruling, EPA spokeswoman Amy Graham commented:

This victory affords EPA the necessary time to conduct a proper evaluation under the law of the science and the studies on chlorpyrifos and provide clarity about the pesticide's safety to the American people.

The Trump EPA should continue to reject the green advocates’ request even if they must take some political heat in “fake news” stories about the alleged risks of the chemical.  Pruitt’s decision represents a brave repudiation of policy making based on junk science—a critically important precedent worth maintaining for this issue and many others.