Aside from the obvious risks of pesticides being sprayed onto food crops, some are hazardous in less controllable ways — they float through the air once sprayed, and can contaminate water supplies, soil, nearby homes and schools, and other food crops.
They can also make the air toxic, harming anyone who works or lives in the area and breathes the air.
That’s especially true if the pesticide cloud contains chlorpyrifos.
One of the most dangerous and popular pesticides in the world, chlorpyrifos has been shown to increase the risk of learning disabilities, developmental delays, and autism, and it was on track to be fully banned in the US earlier this year.
After years of research, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that every instance of the pesticide being used on food crops posed risks to human health and concluded that its continued use violated federal law.
More than a decade earlier, the indoor use of the pesticide had been outlawed because of its myriad health risks. As more data became available, a plan to fully ban it was put into motion. But then Scott Pruitt was appointed director of the agency by former president Donald Trump and he suspended the ban, calling instead for additional research into its effects.
In doing so, he endangered the health of people across the US — especially children, pregnant women, farm workers, and low-income people in agricultural areas — according to prominent environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and medical associations like the American Association of Pediatrics, and opened up the latest chapter in the fight to rein in pesticide use in the US and around the world.
“Of the pesticides currently used in the market, this is one that’s really bad,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a senior scientist of the health and environment at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s used extensively on food crops and very toxic, even at low levels.”
Each year, approximately 5-8 million pounds of chlorpyrifos are used in the US on everyday food items like oranges, corn, strawberries, potatoes, nuts and the pesticide is used on close to half of the country’s apples and broccoli.
An analysis by the EPA found that many non-organic fruits and vegetables had traces of the pesticide and residue levels were sometimes 140 times higher than the amount a child could safely consume on daily basis.
Earlier this year, dozens of farmworkers in California began vomiting and feeling sick when what was late confirmed to be a pesticide containing chlorpyrifos drifted over the orchard they were working in.
For families, advocates, and scientists familiar with the chemical’s consequences, this event was maddening, especially because it might have been avoided if the EPA followed its own recommendations.
“[W]e are deeply alarmed that the EPA’s decision to allow the continued use of chlorpyrifos contradicts the agency’s own science and puts developing fetuses, infants, children, and pregnant women at risk,” the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Environmental Working Group wrote in an open letter to Pruitt.
“The risk to infant and children’s health and development is unambiguous,” they added.
This scientific obstruction is in line with Pruitt’s other actions since taking office. According to experts, he’s removed or delayed important regulations meant to ensure water and air quality and protect public health.
Pruitt’s decision is also in line with a broader lack of environmental regulation around the world, especially regarding pesticides. The United Nations has criticized the general use of pesticides, particularly because of their impact on impoverished people.
In a report released earlier this year, the UN argued that current pesticide practices are wholly unnecessary and that their continued use has “catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health, and society as a whole.”
The bulk of these catastrophic impacts, according to the UN, are experienced by people living poverty — especially those who work in or live nearby the fields where pesticides are sprayed and those who cannot afford to eat foods grown organically.
Globally, more than 5 billion pounds of pesticides are used on crops annually. An estimated 200,000 people die each year from acute pesticide poisoning, and up to 41 million face health consequences annually from exposure, according to the UN’s report.
It’s not just human health being affected, either. Pesticides degrade soil, air, and water quality, lead to the destruction of animal and plant species, and disrupt fragile ecosystems. While they're intended to harm organisms in specific areas, they often go far beyond their scope. Chlorpyrifos, for instance, has been found in 15% of US drinking water.
The $50 billion pesticide market is growing in size and has significant lobbying clout, which means that the scale of pesticide pollution could keep growing. As the Intercept has shown, leading chlorpyrifos producers like Dow engage in misleading advertising and faulty scientific research to confuse the public understanding of health and environmental consequences.
“The pesticide manufacturers have been successful at sowing doubt about the real risks from these pesticides, you hear a lot how the studies behind a lot of the claims aren’t valid even though they’re done by very well-known universities, and researchers,” said Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational safety and health at Farmworker Justice.
In many countries, however, these tactics aren’t necessary. Less than 35% of countries worldwide govern the use of pesticides, according to the UN, leading to disparities in the types and volumes of chemicals used.
The UN is calling for this system to be overhauled and for global treaties to responsibly govern the use of pesticides. It’s also calling for agriculture in general to return to more natural processes of pest control and holistic farming.
“The [pesticide industry] argues that if you put in health protections to protect communities and workers, then the world will starve and the UN experts, which have much more expertise, weighed in to the call the industry’s bluff,” said Rotkin-Ellman.
“It speaks to a real, growing understanding that there are alternatives,” she said. “I think most people want healthy farming, most people don’t want farming that poisons people.”
In the US, only one state has an environmental protection agency that reviews pesticide use outside of the federal level — California, which also happens to the be the state where chlorpyrifos is most widely used.
As legal battles are waged on the federal level to eliminate the pesticide, a separate battle is being waged in California to eliminate it on the state level.
Victory on either front would be a step toward eliminating chlorpyrifos on the global level.
Chlorpyrifos comes from a class of pesticides known as an organophosphates. Previous organophosphates that were banned in the US for being too toxic include DDT and arsenate.
These pesticides work by blocking a critical neural enzyme in animals that can rapidly lead to death. Chlorpyrifos alone is able to kill more than 400 species in this way.
In humans, the short- and long-term consequences of chlorpyrifos exposure are well-known. In children, it has been linked to reduced cognitive abilities and mental issues. For adults, it has been linked to cancer, respiratory problems, and other neurological conditions. In highly concentrated short-term doses, it can cause vomiting, seizures, and even death.
It’s likely that most people in the US have ingested the pesticide due to the norms of the country's food system, but it’s the people who regularly experience pesticidal drift who are most at risk. More often than not, that means farmworkers and low-income communities of color due to the history of environmental racism.
As Farmworker Justice has shown, farmworkers are exposed to pesticides at rates hundreds of times greater than the general public. Workers are regularly present when pesticides are sprayed, they experience drift events when the air is clogged with chemicals, and they are forced to return to work in fields before chemicals have sufficiently cleared. Further, pesticides pose an chronic risk as they saturate the soil, air, and water in areas where people work.
“It’s communities of color and low-income communities that bear the brunt not only of the onslaught [of chlorpyrifos], but also often are denied quality early intervention resources to mitigate the effects on a child’s educational success,” said Rotkin-Ellman.
The true extent of how many people have been poisoned is unknown for a variety of reasons. For one, many farmworkers are undocumented or have precarious working visas and do not want to risk seeking medical help or voicing concern for fear of repercussions, according to Ruiz of Farmworker Justice. Further, many people who experience relevant symptoms do not think to associate them with pesticide exposure; many consequences are long-term and therefore harder to directly attribute to a specific incident; doctors are not always familiar with the range of pesticide-related symptoms; and pesticide producers advertise the benefits of their products, while downplaying the risks.
Partly because the people who are most affected by chlorpyrifos often have little political power, the fight to get chlorpyrifos out of the food system has stalled over the years, according to Earthjustice.
The hazards of chlorpyrifos have been known since at least the 1990s, when DowElanco was forced to pay the largest to-date fine for its sale of the pesticide.
In 2000, chlorpyrifos was banned as an indoor pesticide because of its toxicity, and since then, a series of lawsuits and petitions have urged the EPA to outright ban the pesticide. Many rigorous scientific assessments have bolstered the case against the pesticide during these years.
“Chlorpyrifos is unique in that there is so much inconvertible evidence over many decades [showing its harm] and that makes the decision by the EPA to continue to authorize its use in agriculture so incredible,” said Ruiz.
“The fact that it’s still being used in agricultural settings and workers, their families, and rural residents are still exposed to it,” she said. “It’s an unacceptable double standard.”
Now that the pesticide is on the cusp of being eliminated, environmental and citizen groups are pushing for the final steps to be taken.
“We have pesticide laws because people are worried about pesticides,” said Rotkin-Ellman. “And laws that are specifically designed to protect children because the public doesn’t want a farming system that grows fruits and veggies in a way that harms children.”
“Instead of having a real implementation of these laws, we have an administration basically playing politics with health,” she said.
The lawsuit being waged by environmental and worker groups, joined by several states, aims to get chlorpyrifos banned under the Food Quality Protection Act. Because the EPA determined that its presence on foods is unsafe, its continued use technically violates the law.
In California, advocates are looking to get the state EPA to issue a ban on chlorpyrifos based on all the evidence that has accrued.
Additionally, there’s pending legislation in both the Senate and the House that could sidestep the EPA and outright ban the sale of the pesticide.
These are the most prominent actions being taken against the chemical and they’re supported by tens of thousands of comments from US citizens who have seen first-hand the effects of chlorpyrifos or are aware of its toxicity.
There’s also rising demand among US consumers for organic produce that, by law, cannot be grown with toxic pesticides. In 2016, 68% of US citizens had bought organic produce during a one-month period, according to Pew Research.
That seems to suggest that the tide of public opinion against pesticides is growing. The dominant mode of agriculture in the 20th century — heavy chemical use and monoculture farming — is beginning to give way to more environmentally sensitive models.
“This is an issue that touches all of us,” said Rotkin-Ellman. “It’s on all of us to push for healthier farming, we need people to start standing up and saying this is not okay.”