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EPA Won’t Ban Controversial Dow Pesticide

March 29, 2017, 11:59 PM

This story is from March 29, 2017.

The EPA has reversed course in its effort to restrict a widely used, insect-controlling pesticide, backpedaling on one of the Obama administration’s key initiatives to lower pesticide exposure.

The Environmental Protection Agency will deny a decade-old petition from environmental groups to revoke all uses, called “tolerances,” of chlorpyrifos on food, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced March 29. The insecticide is an important crop protection tool for fruit, vegetable and row crop growers.

“We need to provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos, while still protecting human health and the environment,” Pruitt said in a statement. “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.”

The agency released its decision two days before a court-ordered deadline to act on the 2007 petition from the Pesticide Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Department of Justice is expected to file its response to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit by the end of the week.

Another Blow to Obama’s Green Legacy

The farm and landscaping insecticide was developed by Dow AgroSciences and first registered by the EPA in 1965. Environmentalists have sought to end use of the chemical, which they say has been linked to neurodevelopmental delays in children, for decades.

In denying the petition, the EPA said it disagreed with the methodology used by the previous administration to justify what amounts to a near-ban of the chemical.

The agency issued a proposed rule to revoke the tolerances in 2015, using its authority in the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act. The agency based part of its scientific justification for doing so on epidemiological studies that measured levels of the chemical in exposed women and children.

Under former Administrator Gina McCarthy—President Obama’s second nominee to run the agency—the EPA worked to solidify the scientific justification for revoking the tolerances, including a human health risk assessment that relied in part on a controversial epidemiological study from Columbia University on children’s health effects.

Epidemiologists say these population studies record changes in learning and behavior that can’t be traced in the rodent experiments that historically serve as the basis for the EPA’s pesticide regulations. But the chemical industry argues that epidemiological studies are difficult to control, and adverse outcomes can be attributed to a range of diet, lifestyle and other environmental factors.

In its latest order, the EPA concluded that “the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved” and that the agency will not complete the human health portion of the registration review or any tolerance revocation without first attempting to “come to a clearer scientific resolution on those issues.”

The order focuses on the aspects of the petition that addressed chlorpyrifos’s harm to children.

Environmentalists to demand court action

Patti Goldman, the Earthjustice attorney representing the petitioners PAN and NRDC, said they will ask the 9th Circuit to address the order. Today’s decision from the EPA doesn’t satisfy what the court asked of the agency, she told Bloomberg BNA.

“What EPA has done is to say ‘we need to study this more’,” she said. “The court said [in the past], ‘you’ve studied this a lot, you need to take action’.”

Dow criticized the EPA in its 2015 human health assessment for relying specifically on an epidemiological study from Columbia University that found that chlorpyrifos affected brain development in New York City children exposed in utero. The study’s data was kept confidential by the university, prompting Dow and other industry groups to ask the EPA not to rely on the observations.

The company swiftly applauded the EPA decision.

“Dow AgroSciences remains confident that authorized uses of chlorpyrifos products offer wide margins of protection for human health and safety,” spokesman David Sousa said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at