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Why Won't the EPA Ban This Extremely Toxic Pesticide?

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Why Won't the EPA Ban This Extremely Toxic Pesticide?

By Nicole Greenfield

The pesticide industry and Dow Chemical have a new reason to cheer. The rest of us appear to be stuck with chlorpyrifos on our food, at least for the time being.


On March 29, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the EPA would reverse a proposed ban on this extremely harmful pesticide and allow it to remain on the market. The move adds to the Trump administration's growing roster of decisions informed by "alternative facts." Nearly two decades' worth of scientific studies—including analyses by Pruitt's own agency—have documented the numerous risks this bug-killer poses to children and pregnant women.

What's more, exposure to chlorpyrifos, one of the most widely used insecticides in the U.S., is extremely difficult to avoid. Farmers across the U.S. spray approximately five million pounds of it every year on crops like apples, oranges, broccoli and walnuts―more than one million pounds of it in agriculture-rich California alone.

Part of a family of nerve agents developed during World War II, chlorpyrifos, unsurprisingly, has incredible potential for harm. Research shows that exposure to this pesticide can increase the risk for behavioral issues and serious neurological damage in children, including ADHD, developmental delays and lower IQs. Scientists and doctors consider these neurological effects to be "permanent, irreversible and lifelong." Studies have also shown that children exposed to chlorpyrifos and other closely related pesticides face greater risk of developing asthma-like symptoms and diminished lung function.

A November 2016 assessment by the Obama EPA emphasized the health threats and, for the first time, highlighted the extent to which children and pregnant women are vulnerable to them. The agency found unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos residue lurking on some of our favorite fruits, vegetables and nuts—even after they were washed, peeled or cracked. And food isn't the only way people are exposed. Many farmworkers and families who live in agricultural communities also encounter the pesticide in the air they breathe and the water they drink.

The dangers of chlorpyrifos were evident long before last year's analysis—so evident that, as a result of pressure from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the EPA decided to ban the chemical for household use in 2000 (in pest-control products). But scientists and health experts remained concerned about its other uses. That's why, in 2007, NRDC and Pesticide Action Network petitioned the EPA to finish the job by also banning agricultural applications.

"After we achieved better protections for kids in the home, we were still concerned that chlorpyrifos sprayed on crops was poisoning agricultural communities, farmworkers and their families and contaminating fruits and vegetables," NRDC staff scientist Veena Singla said. According to an April 2014 report by the California Department of Public Health, farms spray toxic pesticides within a quarter mile of more than 430 schools in California's Central Valley. And the EPA's 2016 assessment found that air contamination in California's agricultural areas puts pregnant women at risk—levels of chlorpyrifos measured in the air in one town were found to be 44 times higher than what's deemed acceptable. These impacts disproportionately endanger communities of color. Latino children are almost two times more likely than white children to attend schools near fields with the heaviest pesticide use. Latinos also make up the majority of residents living in homes adjacent to sprayed fields.

Finally, in response to the indisputable facts presented by scientists and health advocates highlighting the risk to children from chlorpyrifos, the Obama EPA proposed a total ban in October 2015 and affirmed the need for the ban last November. Unfortunately, faced with a court-mandated deadline for a decision by March 31, Pruitt chose to deny his agency's own scientific conclusions, giving a boost to Dow Chemical (the maker of chlorpyrifos) and the pesticide industry at the expense of kids across the country.

"This is yet another example of EPA Administrator Pruitt's willingness to go against the scientific conclusions of the agency's own staff and sacrifice children's health for industry profits," said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a senior scientist in NRDC's health and environment program. "It's very similar to what we've already seen out of Pruitt's office on climate and water protections. His claims of the need for more study are unfounded."

And it turns out that what Pruitt did—reverse a proposed ban without providing new scientific evidence that chlorpyrifos can be safely used in agriculture—is unlawful. So NRDC, Pesticide Action Network and Earthjustice are taking the EPA administrator to court. "They actually didn't make a decision as the court directed them to do repeatedly; they just kicked the can down the road another five years," Rotkin-Ellman explained. "EPA proposed the ban because chlorpyrifos is putting kids at risk, the administrator has offered no science to show that this dangerous pesticide is safe, and so EPA must implement the ban."

As we wait for federal action, parents of small children or those with kids on the way, can protect their families by purchasing organic fruits and vegetables as much as possible. Chlorpyrifos and related toxic pesticides are prohibited on organic produce.

Fortunately, the EPA is not the only option. NRDC, as part of the Californians for Pesticide Reform coalition, is asking Gov. Jerry Brown to step in, follow the science, and implement a ban on chlorpyrifos use within the state to protect both Californians and those who eat California produce. The American people shouldn't have to stand for "alternative science" that puts our health at stake.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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