Opinion: Hawaii justified in flexing state muscles on chlorpyrifos

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A little history lesson.

Since it was first registered by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1965 to control pests in both commercial and non-commercial agricultural settings, chlorpyrifos has had a checkered past.

Chlorpyrifos has long been a go-to pesticide for the U.S. corn producers.  But by 2000, it was becoming widely recognized that misuse of the pesticide had unintended consequences – killing fish and wildlife and potentially endangering human health.

Instead of immediately banning use of chlorpyrifos, the EPA tried a voluntary approach, requiring chlorpyrifos users to promise pretty please to not use the pesticide around the house (except as roach and ant bait that had to be sold in child-proof packaging) and discontinue use on tomatoes, apples after blooming and lowering how much could be sprayed on grapes.

But that wasn’t enough.  Far from it.

In 2002, EPA had to take more strident measures including increasing personal protective equipment requirements:

“PPE consisting of double layers, chemical resistant gloves, chemical resistant shoes plus socks, chemical resistant headgear for overhead exposure, chemical resistant apron when cleaning and mixing or loading and a dust/mist respirator are required for the following scenarios: mixing/loading liquids for groundboom and airblast application, loading granulars for ground application, tractor drawn granular spreader, and low pressure handwand.”

EPA also wrote regulations requiring chlorpyrifos users to create create buffer zones to protect fish and wildlife, and reduce the amount of chlorpyrifos that could be applied annually to corn and citrus crops.

Nasty stuff, right?

Well even all that did not end the growing controversy swirling around the nation whether chlorpyrifos could be used safely.  

EPA’s 2011 Preliminary Human Health Risk Assessment found that young children exposed to chlorpyrifos had more developmental delays and disorders than children with no contact with chlorpyrifos.

But even then EPA was indecisive:

“Therefore, as a result of the Agency’s review and critical assessment of these data, including expert elicitation to characterize known uncertainties in these studies, EPA concludes that chlorpyrifos likely played a role in the neurodevelopmental outcomes observed in these epidemiology studies.  It cannot be stated with certainty, however, that chlorpyrifos is the sole contributor to these effects.”

In 2016 EPA updated its Human Health Risk Assessment, saying a bunch of new studies “…provides sufficient evidence that there are neurodevelopmental effects occurring…”

With all that chlorpyrifos was finally supposed to be banned in 2017.  Until it wasn’t.

Which takes us finally to earlier this month.  

Hawaii, clearly frustrated and tired with all the twists and turns surrounding what the feds think is acceptable chlorpyrifos usage flat out banned its use anywhere under any circumstances in the Aloha State, ignoring Monsanto’s full court press to keep the status quo.

Hawaii has some special concerns regarding pesticide usage, especially given what is essentially a year-round multiple growing seasons, and the nearness of significant farm acreage to residential areas.  

Still Hawaii governor David Ige showed political backbone in signing the banning.  And there have been successfully litigated l lawsuits over worker safety.

Oh so predictably companies standing to lose revenue were quick to gnash their teeth.

CropLife president and CEO Jay Vroom said in a statement that “A total ban of any product that ignores this scientific, risk-based regulation is informed not by science, but by politics and has the potential to lead to confusion in the marketplace, leaving farmers and other pesticide users without the tools they need to protect agriculture, landscapes, structures and public health.”

Will Bayer, who recently bought out Monsanto, raise a white flag over Hawaii’s new law banning  chlorpyrifos (it is scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2019) or will it head to the courts?  

I expect Bayer will look for a temporary injunction to keep the law from going into effect while it develops its court strategy.  

And I expect Hawaii to defend the law tooth and nail – public safety should always trump profit.


About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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