EPA faces decision on chemical linked to brain damage in children

When Claudia Angulo was pregnant with her son, she often felt nauseated and experienced vomiting and headaches. 

She didn’t think much of it, until after she learned her son had Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder and difficulties with language and learning. 

Angulo said she later discovered that a chemical she had been exposed to through her job — which involved taste-testing produce before it was washed — has been associated with health risks including brain damage in children. 

“At the time that I was pregnant, in the company there were like 10 women that were pregnant and of those 10 women, seven of their kids were born with [health] problems,” she told The Hill in an interview conducted in Spanish. 

And they’re not alone. 

Studies have linked prenatal exposure to the chemical, called chlorpyrifos, to neurodevelopmental issues including lower IQ and impaired working memory. 

Chlorpyrifos is used to prevent insects from affecting a variety of crops like berries, citrus fruits, vegetables and nuts. It’s currently banned for most residential uses but is still used in agriculture and there are several ways farmworkers can be exposed to it including through handling and applying it as well as experiencing drift from other nearby farms. 

In 2015, the Obama administration proposed banning its use on food and crops. However, in 2017, then-EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittAnother toxic EPA cookbook Juan Williams: Swamp creature at the White House Science protections must be enforceable MORE reversed course, saying that further study was warranted. 

“We are returning to using sound science in decision-making — rather than predetermined results,” he said at the time.

The EPA now is weighing whether to propose a ban. 

Last week, in assessing risks presented by the chemical, the EPA said that “despite several years of study, the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved.”

Advocates fear that this is a signal that the agency won’t ban the substance.

“It seems to signal that they’re going to not ban it because back in 2016 when they did a different risk assessment and found that there was risk, then they started the process to ban it,” said Iris Figueroa, an attorney with Farmworker Justice, a group currently suing in favor of a ban. 

“It logically follows, although it’s not for certain, the fact that they’re saying the stuff is unresolved means that they’re moving toward a different sort of decision than the one that they took just three years ago,” Figueroa added. 

An EPA spokesperson said in an email on Friday that its forthcoming proposal on what to do about chlorpyrifos “will outline potential risk management options to address any potential risks of concern” that were identified in the risk assessments.

The spokesperson said that the agency “has undertaken considerable efforts to assess the available chlorpyrifos data, providing a detailed discussion of the strengths and uncertainties associated with the epidemiology studies.”

The official particularly pointed to a major study from Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) saying that “although EPA does not have reason to believe that the CCCEH inappropriately handled the data or statistical analysis, without the availability of the raw data, EPA remains unable to verify the reported findings of the CCCEH papers.” 

The agency has made requests for this data in recent years. The most recent piece of correspondence posted to the agency’s website on the matter is an email from 2018 in which a Columbia professor indicated that the agency would need to “clarify” its information requests. 

Some epidemiological studies are unable to make their underlying data public due to privacy concerns.

Chlorpyrifos’s opponents are in court, hoping the judicial system would force restrictions. 

Patti Goldman, an attorney with Earthjustice, said the court could rule one of three ways: that the EPA doesn’t have to do anything, that it would give the agency a certain amount of time to find the substance safe if it wants to proceed without a ban, or it could require a ban. 

In the interim, agricultural use of chlorpyrifos continues. Anyone in the country can be exposed to it through their food, but farmworkers and communities near large farms face additional exposure risks and unique challenges seeking remedies. 

One of the largest issues for the nation’s farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, is access to health care, Figueroa said. 

“They have very low wages. They often don’t have health insurance, there are language barriers, cultural barriers, just practical barriers such as transportation for being able to access health care,” she said. 

“Being able to identify it as pesticide poisoning, being able to then seek medical help from that and the additional step, of pursuing a legal claim when…many of them have a fear of immigration status retaliation or might not even be eligible for some of those legal services because of their immigration status…there’s a few different barriers in each of those steps to be able to report it and to get some sort of remedy.”

Advocates believe that these issues are some of several that contribute to an undercount of how many people have seen impacts from exposure to chlorpyrifos and other pesticides. 

“There are about 30 states that actually have requirements for reporting pesticides, there‘s somewhere between 12 or 13 states that have an active surveillance system,” said Amy Liebman, the director of the Migrant Clinicians Network, which aims to help clinicians provide care for migrants. 

“There is just overwhelming underreporting so unless we’re just seeing these kinds of massive outbreaks…it’s not automatic that it’s going to come across the EPA’s desk,” she said. 

Figueroa also said it’s unique that the EPA has such an important role in determining which chemicals agricultural workers are exposed to because for other sectors the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, within the Department of Labor, acts as a chemical regulator. 

“The Environmental Protection Agency is tasked with protecting the environment but when it comes to pesticides that affect the environment, farm workers are affected as well, but the focus often is on the registration of the products and there’s a lot of industry voice in that process and there’s not, we feel, an equal voice for the workers,” Figueroa added. 

Angulo was exposed to chlorpyrifos years ago, and her son is now 14. She expressed frustration that the chlorpyrifos is still in use. 

“Pregnant women continue working in the fields and they keep having babies with issues,” she said. 

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