A pesticide is “any substance used to kill, repel, or control certain forms of plant or animal life that are considered to be pests.” No one denies the harm in ingestion of a pesticide. However, the legality of using certain chemicals in pesticides has been long debated – at present, the chemical chlorpyrifos is of particular concern.
An active ingredient in some pesticides since 1965, chlorpyrifos is “used primarily to control foliage and soil-borne insect pests on a variety of food and feed crops.” A Google search shows that it is sold under a variety of brand names. In the past few years, chlorpyrifos has been a focus of concern because of a government-supported study conducted by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University. One of the findings of this study confirms, “Children with high pesticide exposure cluster together to form a distinct behavioral phenotype… Cognitive and behavioral deficits associated with this phenotype may be mapped to alterations in brain regions and function.”
Legislation related to pesticide control was first introduced in Congress over a century ago in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. Since its enactment in 1910, this legislation has been amended and new legislation regulating pesticide use has passed, such as the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996. In November 2015, the EPA, with former head Gina McCarthy, proposed a ban on the use of neurotoxic chemical chlorpyifos on all food crops. What then happened to this proposal is unclear.
During the tumultuous tenure of former EPA head Scott Pruitt, in 2017 and 2018, chlorpyrifos came to the pesticide forefront. In 2017, Pruitt refused to sign off on a ban of the use of chlorpyrifos as a pesticide on food crops. This decision, many say, is a sign of Pruitt siding with the “Pesticide Lobby”. Groups such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have denounced and fought against Pruitt’s action, noting that, “The evidence is overwhelming that even small doses of chlorpyrifos can damage parts of the brain that control language, memory, behavior and emotion.” Finally, last month, Pruitt’s decision was reversed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit – the EPA now bans the use of chlorpyrifos on food crops.
While the above decision is a victory for food safety, the results of this legislation are not immediate. Additionally, fruits and vegetables must still be washed before eaten both to eliminate any residual pesticide and to better the taste. On the positive note, though, the EWG notes that, “the agency [has] put children’s health, strong science and the letter of the law above corporate interests.”