Sweeping U.S. pesticide reform bill introduced, banning some chemical agents

The Protect America’s Children From Toxic Pesticides Act of 2020, introduced on Tuesday by Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, and Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat of Colorado, would overhaul the nation’s framework for regulating the sale and use of pesticides to safeguard public health and the environment, the legislators said in a press call with a panel of experts.

Current regulations are based on outdated science and contain loopholes that keep dangerous pesticides on the market despite clear evidence of harm to people and the environment, they said. “Our nation’s system for regulating harmful pesticides is broken and badly outdated,” said Sen. Udall. The system was meant to protect farmers and agricultural workers, consumers and the environment, he said. “But it’s not. It’s protecting the pesticide industry.”

The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) governs how pesticides are sold and used through registration and labeling requirements. Pesticide manufacturers must show that their product, if used properly, will not cause “any unreasonable risk to man or the environment, taking into account the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of the use of any pesticide.” The EPA is charged with ensuring that they do so.

Yet since pesticide regulations were last updated a quarter century ago, scientists have discovered that many pesticides on the market cause a range of neurodevelopmental effects and are likely contributing to the catastrophic decline of the bees that pollinate the nation’s crops.

The EPA has wide latitude in deciding whether to ban a dangerous pesticide, Sen. Udall said. “And the EPA has been coming down on the side of industry profits and against the health of our children, farmworkers, families and the environment.”

Rep. Neguse’s district in Colorado includes top experts in organic and regenerative agriculture, he said. “And for years, these experts have been warning us of the dangers posed by the profit-driven pesticide regulation and oversight system as it exists today.” 

Once pesticides are approved in this system, they often remain on the market for decades, Rep. Neguse said, “even when scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows that a pesticide is causing harm to people or the environment.”

The organic food industry, which is the fastest growing sector of the food industry, has proven that farmers don’t need to use toxic pesticides, said Gary Hirshberg, cofounder of Stonyfield Organic. Where organics were once a niche market, he said, now 100% of supermarkets in America have “enormous” organic food sections.

The United States also allows use of dozens of toxic pesticides that other countries have banned, Sen. Udall said. “One third of annual U.S. pesticide use, over 300 million pounds from 85 different pesticides, comes from pesticides that are banned in the European Union.”

The Udall-Neguse bill bans the most dangerous pesticides and strengthens EPA oversight by closing loopholes that allow pesticides on the market without comprehensive evaluation of their health and environmental impacts. It creates a process for citizens to petition the EPA to review dangerous pesticides and requires the agency to review substances the European Union or Canada deem unsafe.

It also protects frontline communities by establishing an injury reporting system, while requiring pesticide labels to be printed in English and Spanish or in any language spoken by more than 500 individuals working with the pesticide. 

The pesticides covered in the bill are some of the most harmful known to science: organophosphates, insecticides used as chemical weapons in World War II, that cause neurodevelopmental damage in children; neonicotinoids, insecticides linked to the collapse of pollinator populations and restricted or banned in the European Union and Canada; and paraquat, an herbicide associated with increased risk of Parkinson’s disease that is so dangerous even the EPA warns “one sip can kill.” “We have a growing body of research that these pesticides, once thought safe to humans, are probably causing birth defects and other adverse developmental problems,” said Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. 

Goldman was at the EPA in the 1990s, when agency scientists first reviewed the organophosphate chlorpyrifos’ potential to harm the developing brain. “We removed it from a number of products,” she said, and set in motion a process that culminated in EPA’s 2016 decision to phase it out completely. The Trump administration reversed that decision the next year.

A few weeks after the Trump administration’s reversal, several women harvesting cabbage in California’s Kern County fell ill when chlorpyrifos drifted from a nearby field. Bricmary Lopez, a mother of three, collapsed in convulsions. 

“Organophosphate pesticides not only poison farmworkers, they also rob the nation’s children of their intellectual potential,” said Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers. “Exposure extends to consumers who unknowingly feed their families food with vestiges of nerve agents.”

Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist for Pesticide Action Network who was not on the call, praised the legislation. “It’s phenomenal to see this interest and legislators who recognize the dire need to make these big reforms that we’ve been waiting for for decades,” she said. And now with the coronavirus pandemic, “people are really starting to understand that the health and well being of the people who feed us matters.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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