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California, Nation’s Top User of Chlorpyrifos, Announces Ban on Brain-Damaging Pesticide

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California will ban a brain-damaging pesticide that the Trump administration's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has delayed banning at the national level, the state announced Wednesday.


Chlorpyrifos, which is used on almonds, citrus, grapes, cotton, walnuts and other crops, has been shown to harm children's health and neurological development.

"Countless people have suffered as a result of this chemical," California EPA (Cal-EPA) Secretary Jared Blumenfeld told The Guardian. "A lot of people live and work and go to school right next to fields that are being sprayed with chlorpyrifos … It's an issue of environmental health and justice."

The ban will take effect between six months and two years, and is accompanied by $5.7 million in funds from Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom to help transition to safer alternatives, The Washington Post reported. California follows Hawaii and New York in approving a ban on the pesticide, and bills to ban chlorpyrifos are being considered by New Jersey, Connecticut and Oregon.

The EPA had recommended banning the pesticide during the Obama administration, but Trump's first pick for EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, walked back those efforts in 2017. Environmental groups then sued the agency. In the most recent development in the ensuing legal battle, a federal judge in April ordered the EPA to make a final decision on a ban by mid-July.

"Governor Newsom has done what the Trump administration has refused to do: protect children, farmworkers and millions of others from being exposed to this neurotoxic pesticide," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement reported by The Washington Post. "With the governor's action, California is once again showing leadership in protecting public health."

University of California, San Francisco medical professor and former Cal-EPA Deputy Secretary Dr. Gina Solomon told Time that chlorpyrifos was unique among pesticides in that scientists know a significant amount about how it harms humans.

"We know a lot about what it does to developing children and that science is the bedrock of the action that Cal-EPA is announcing," she said. "Many pesticides have been studied well in lab rats but in this case we actually know what it does to people."

Chlorpyrifos has been shown to harm brain development in fetuses and lead to reduced IQ and reading ability and increased hyperactivity, in children. Children exposed in utero even have smaller heads, Solomon said.

"The science is definitive," Blumenfeld told The Guardian. "This job really should have been done by the US EPA."

However, Solomon noted that since California grows the majority of fruits and vegetables in the U.S., its ban will have a positive impact on other states, too.

One reason activists say the Trump administration has stalled on banning chlorpyrifos is that the predecessor of the pesticide's current manufacturer, DowDuPont, donated to Trump, The Guardian reported. The company has promised to challenge California's ban.

"This proposal disregards a robust database of more than 4,000 studies and reports examining the product in terms of health, safety and the environment," DowDuPont spokesman Gregg Schmidt said in an email reported by The Washington Post. "We are evaluating all options to challenge this proposal."

Chlorpyrifos use has fallen in California from two million pounds in 2005 to 900,000 pounds in 2016, but the state is still the largest user of the pesticide in the U.S.

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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