Hawaii lawmakers who oversee committees on agriculture and the environment indicated a new resolve last week to ban a commonly used insecticide that could be harming the brains of fetuses and young children, as well as farm workers.
The issue arose following a decision by the new chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to continue allowing use of the chemical on food crops nationwide. Scott Pruitt, the new head of the EPA under the Trump administration, rejected the scientific recommendation of his own agency on Wednesday that the insecticide chlorpyrifos be banned on all food crops.
The staff recommendation came after 10 years of scientific review spurred by a 2007 petition brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Pesticide Action Network to ban the product.
Earlier this year, Hawaii legislators had introduced a bill that would have banned the insecticide statewide, saying the cause was all the more urgent now that President Donald Trump had assumed office and vowed to roll back environmental regulations. But the House measure failed to advance last month after Rep. Angus McKelvey, the former chairman of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, declined to schedule a hearing on the measure.
Agricultural interests had urged state lawmakers to await the EPA ruling. Now that the decision is out, Hawaii lawmakers have indicated a new urgency in moving forward on statewide restrictions.
The chemical is widely used on fruits and vegetables, including seed corn, pineapple, melons and other produce grown in Hawaii. It’s also used on golf courses, tree farms, turf grown for sod and in nurseries, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
“It is frustrating that we are seeing a rapid rise in corporate influence in the decisions being made by the EPA, the FCC and other federal agencies that undermine the common good to allow a few companies to profit at the expense of the people,” said Rep. Chris Lee, chairman of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, who has pushed bills increasing oversight of pesticides. “We have an obligation as elected officials at the state level to take action to protect our people when the federal government won’t.”
Rep. Richard Creagan, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, who introduced the bill banning chlorpyrifos in Hawaii, said it was unlikely that the measure would be resurrected this late in the legislative session, but that a new bill could be pushed next year.
“As much as I would like to ban chlorpyrifos this year, I don’t anticipate that happening,” he said, while calling the EPA decision “egregious.”
On the Senate side, Mike Gabbard, chairman of the Agriculture and Environment Committee, also said he would support an effort to ban chlorpyrifos. So did state Department of Agriculture Director Scott Enright.
“I thought that the (EPA) decision might have missed some of the points that have been made earlier,” Enright said.
In the meantime, Creagan has amended Senate Bill 804 to allocate funding to the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine to study the risk that chlorpyrifos spraying could pose to pregnant women on Oahu, Hawaii island and Kauai. While the EPA had recommended that the insecticide be banned because of concerns about the chemical’s residue on produce and ability to penetrate drinking water supplies, there are also concerns that spraying agricultural fields could harm nearby residents.
Creagan, who is also a medical doctor, said that scientific studies had shown clear links between exposure to high levels of the chemical and brain abnormalities, a particular concern for fetuses and young children whose brains are rapidly developing.
“In this case, it’s more subtle because their physical appearance might be normal, but their brain development is potentially, severely altered,” Creagan said. “And therefore the functioning of their brain and their cognitive abilities in childhood and later in life is permanently impacted.”
The EPA, under the Obama administration, also raised concerns that workers who mix, load and apply chlorpyrifos to ag fields and enter the fields after they have been treated could be exposed to unsafe levels of the chemical.
Last year, the EPA slapped Syngenta with a $4.9 million fine for directing workers to enter a research field in Kekaha, Kauai, too soon after it was sprayed with chlorpyrifos.
During the January 2016 incident, 19 workers entered the field and 10 of them were later taken to a nearby hospital for medical treatment.
Chlorpyrifos has been used in the U.S. since 1965, but federal regulators have recently scaled back its uses amid growing concerns about the chemical’s safety. In 2000 the agency banned its use in homes, except for ant and roach bait sold in child-resistant packaging.
In recent years, the agency has also banned its use on tomatoes, reduced the quantity at which it can be sprayed on other produce, and required buffer zones between fields where it is sprayed and public spaces.
In rejecting the petition to ban chlorpyrifos on produce, Pruitt said in a news release Wednesday that the agency needs to study the science more.
“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. “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.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council quickly promised legal action.
“The Trump administration is putting the needs of chemical corporations before children’s health. Parents shouldn’t have to worry that a dangerous chemical might be lurking in the fruits and veggies they feed their kids,” Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a scientist at NRDC, said in a news release. “If the EPA refuses to protect the American people from this hazardous pesticide, we’ll take them to court. The health of our children depends on it.”