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Lawsuit Against EPA Seeks Protection From Dangerous Pesticide Malathion

Health + Wellness
Chris Alberti / CC BY 2.0

Conservation and public health groups sued the Trump administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt on Wednesday for failing to protect endangered wildlife and the environment from the dangerous pesticide malathion.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleges that the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have failed to complete the legally required steps to fully assess and limit the dangers of the neurotoxin.


Malathion is linked to developmental disorders in children and has been found by the World Health Organization to be "probably carcinogenic to humans." Last year EPA scientists determined that the pesticide, manufactured by Dow Chemical, poses widespread risks to protected plants and animals.

"It's deplorable that the Trump administration is putting human health and endangered wildlife at risk to please Dow," said Jonathan Evans, environmental health legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Trump and Pruitt aren't above the law and they have to take reasonable steps to limit the harms of this dangerous pesticide."

In January 2017 the EPA determined in a biological evaluation that 97 percent of federally protected species are likely harmed by malathion. And the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a biological opinion concluding malathion harmed or killed 38 protected species under the agency's jurisdiction.

As part of a legal settlement, government scientists were required to issue a final opinion by the end of last year identifying ways to safeguard endangered species from malathion.

But after the Trump administration took office, Dow officials asked the EPA and other federal agencies to abandon years of work assessing the harms of several pesticides, including malathion. Seven months later the EPA and Fish and Wildlife Service indefinitely suspended the malathion assessment.

"Pruitt's EPA continues to roll back health and environmental protections in favor of corporate profit," said Caroline Cox, research director at the Center for Environmental Health. "EPA's decisions must be based on sound science, not corporate politics."

Around 1 million pounds of malathion are used nationwide annually. The neurotoxin is part of the dangerous class of organophosphate pesticides used as a nerve agent in chemical warfare. They have been linked to Gulf War syndrome, which has symptoms that include fatigue, headaches, skin problems and breathing disorders.

"It is unacceptable to ignore the range of well-documented dangers with this outdated class of organophosphate pesticides," said Sarah Aird, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform. "Malathion is one of the most dangerous pesticides still available on the market."

The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Environmental Health and Californians for Pesticide Reform.

Background
For decades the EPA refused to comply with its legal mandate to protect endangered species from the impacts of pesticides. But following a two-year review by the National Academy of Sciences, the federal government initiated a highly public and transparent process to analyze the impacts of three insecticides, including malathion.

During this process Dow provided extensive comments urging the agencies to abandon the legally required effort. The Center for Biological Diversity recently sued the Trump administration to force officials to release details on Dow's influence over the delay of government studies detailing the dangers of malathion.

In January 2017 Dow was one of three companies that donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration. Shortly thereafter the EPA shocked public health advocates by abruptly scrapping a proposed federal ban on the organophosphate chlorpyrifos, which is known to cause brain damage in children.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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