California regulators are seeking tough new restrictions on the use of the pest-fighting chemical chlorpyrifos — used on several crops grown here on the Central Coast — in large part because scientific research has determined the pesticide can cause health problems for humans — including harming the brains of babies.
But like almost everything science-related over the past two years, the chlorpyrifos debate has turned into a political punching bag.
A federal appeals court last August ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to remove the pesticide from sale in the United States. That, after the Trump administration reversed former President Obama’s efforts to ban the chemical. The EPA is appealing that court decision to a higher court.
In fact, growers throughout California seem to have recognized some years ago the inherent dangers of using chlorpyrifos, drastically reducing use of the chemical since studies in 2005 revealed its harmful potential.
Chlorpyrifos is a class of organophosphates related to a nerve gas developed by Nazi Germany just prior to World War II. In areas where chlorpyrifos was heavily used, traces of the chemical showed up in local drinking water.
That led to a 2012 study at UC Berkeley that found nearly 90 percent of umbilical-cord blood samples from newborns tested positive for various levels of the pesticide.
Pure chlorpyrifos is made up of white or colorless crystals. It smells a little like a skunk’s discharge, rotten eggs or garlic. It is used to control several varieties of pests, including termites, mosquitoes and roundworms.
Chlorpyrifos is used on a wide variety of crops, including apples, oranges, strawberries, almonds, citrus, grapes and other foods the typical American family eats daily.
Chlorpyrifos has caused problems for field workers in the past. More than three dozen workers harvesting cabbage in Kern County last year were sickened when the pesticide drifted from neighboring farms. More than a dozen workers were affected in four incidents this year, including 10 field hands in Solano County where the pesticide was applied to an almond orchard.
Only a handful of North County growers have active permits to use the chemical, but when used it is considered an important component in a grower’s pest-management portfolio. In some cases, growers don’t have much in the way of alternative pest-control methods.
Many local growers see chlorpyrifos as an important tool in pest management, especially with the increase in border trade, which brings more invasive pests into this country. At the same time, most local growers see the proposed new regulations as workable, and a means of buying time while alternative products are developed.
One local grower assured us that the local ag industry wants to use more sustainable products to protect their crops, but their toolbox continues to shrink with regard to the materials available to ensure a safe and plentiful food supply for all consumers.
It seems evident that, barring political interference, the use of chlorpyrifos is on the way out. Numerous studies make it clear that our growing methods have employed potentially dangerous chemicals for years. What hasn’t been definitively established is the connection between many of those chemicals and human health issues. The federal government could help by doing a complete workup on the chemical-to-health-problems correlation, thus helping the ag industry move toward producing crops without potentially health-damaging effects.
Food crops are vital to the nation’s interests, economy and safety, and deserve the full attention of our elected representatives. That is especially true for those elected to represent the Central Coast, where a significant amount of the nation’s food is grown.