EPA Chief Overrules Own Scientists, Declines to Ban Pesticide Linked to Fetal Damage

By: Eric Levitz, Source: New York Magazine, Originally Published: 3.30.17

In 2015, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency advised the Obama administration to ban one of the nation’s most popular pesticides, chlorpyrifos, after concluding that the chemical impaired fetal brain and nervous-system development. Specifically, the children of farm workers exposed to heavy doses of the product appeared to suffer aberrantly high rates of learning, memory, and behavioral problems. The chemical had already been banned for indoor use, in 2001, due to similar concerns.

But Dow Chemical, which makes chlorpyrifos, wasn’t convinced. Nor were many farm groups that rely on the pesticide. And they began lobbying the Obama administration to reject the environmentalists’ supposed alarmism.

Last July, an EPA scientific-review panel scrutinized the agency’s research on chlorpyrifos, and identified some causes for skepticism about the conclusiveness of its findings. This led to revisions in the researchers’ report. Still, as of late last year, EPA staff maintained that the chemical should be prohibited.

But the agency’s new leader, Scott Pruitt, who built his national profile by suing the EPA on behalf of industrial interests, decided to err on the side of birth defects Wednesday night.

“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 written 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.”

In rejecting the ban, Pruitt took “final agency action” on the question of chlorpyrifos’s safety, a move that suggests the EPA will not revisit the matter until 2022.

It’s worth noting that the Obama administration seems to have dragged its feet on this ban, and that there were some quibbles with the initial, underlying research within the EPA. But it is rather difficult to give Pruitt the benefit of the doubt, given the Trump administration’s broader contempt for scientific inquiry.

The day before Pruitt’s announcement, Trump issued a series of executive orders reversing Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and other climate-change policies. He did this without soliciting any advice or guidance from scientists and engineers inside the White House, according to the New York Times. That same day, according to Politico, staffers at the Department of Energy’s climate office were told not to use the words “climate change” or “Paris Agreement” in any written memos — or else the DOE’s new chief, Rick Perry, would have a “visceral reaction.”

Meanwhile, Trump has failed to appoint anyone to the White House’s top advisory positions on technology or science. The administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy is becoming a ghost town.