A Common Pesticide Classified as a Developmental Toxicant

Starting in Dec. 2018, certain products containing the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a common and highly toxic organophosphate pesticide, will be marked with a warning label. Photo Credit: Thinkstock

In a move cheered by advocates for environmental health, an independent state advisory board has unanimously voted to list the pesticide chlorpyrifos as a chemical that can cause developmental delays in children.

California’s Proposition 65 requires the State to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.  The list is reviewed annually.

Starting in December 2018,* certain products containing chlorpyrifos will be marked with a warning label.

“The committee looked at the body of evidence presented and found that all of the scientific information presented to them taken together clearly showed that exposure to chlorpyrifos can harm a developing child,” said Julian Leichty, a representative from the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

The vote by the Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant Identification Committee composed of independent scientists appointed by the governor, occurred on November 29, 2017.

The committee first considered the dangers of chlorpyrifos in 2008, but did not find enough scientific evidence to include it on list. However, newer scientific information now available prompted the committee’s re-visit of the issue.  Two of the studies that were reviewed, according to Leichty, included the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reviews of chlorpyrifos conducted in 2014 and 2016.

Officially known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, California’s Proposition 65 requires businesses to provide warnings to Californians about significant exposure to the chemical.

The listing does not itself come with restrictions on use. Rather, Proposition 65 serves as a “right to know” law. Businesses can determine whether a warning is necessary, based on levels of exposure of the chemical, and the warning can be provided in a variety of forms, including product labels or signs at the point of sale.

“To me the most important thing is we have these really high-powered scientists with excellent reputations and a lot of expertise who looked at all the information and said yes, this chemical is a problem,” said Caroline Cox, Research Director at the Center for Environmental Health.

The Proposition 65 ruling “legitimizes what we’ve known for years and years—that chlorpyrifos isn’t good for us,” said Valerie Gorospe, a community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment who works with farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley.

Advocates have long been asking for action to be taken to further restrict the use of the pesticide, a common and highly toxic organophosphate pesticide produced by Dow Chemical. Aside from immediate, high levels of exposure, which can cause nausea, dizziness and, at the highest levels, respiratory paralysis and death, studies have linked low levels of prenatal exposure to organophosphates such as chlorpyrifos to lower IQ levels and an elevated risk of autism in children.

The EPA’s 2016 Revised Human Health Risk Assessment of the popular pesticide found that there are no safe uses of the pesticide. Under the Obama administration, the EPA had proposed banning chlorpyrifos—a rule that would have gone into effect in 2017. However, in March 2017, the department, under Trump-appointed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, reversed that decision.

In December 2017 six companies in Kern County, CA, where the pesticide is regularly used, were fined for violations related to pesticide drift incidents that occurred in August. An incident with the pesticide also occurred in Kern County in May of 2017.

Despite the EPA’s reversal on its decision to ban the chemical, California may yet take more actions to further restrict the use of chlorpyrifos in the state.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) released interim guidelines for use of chlorpyrifos in September 2017, and the department is submitting its risk assessment of the chemical to its own independent panel of scientists, called the Scientific Review Panel, for review later this January. The review may ultimately lead to more statewide restrictions on chlorpyrifos after December 2018, according to Charlotte Fadipe, spokesperson for DPR.

“California is very different from some other states,” explained Fadipe. “Here in California, we have farms next to schools next to homes, and we have to take that into account. That’s why our rules have to be different from states like Iowa, where there might not be anyone close to farms for miles and miles.”

California uses more chlorpyrifos than any other state (1.1 million tons in 2015), and according to a 2014 California Department of Public Health study, more than half a million pounds of pesticides of public health concern were applied within a quarter mile of public schools in the 15 counties with the most agricultural pesticide use; more than 118,000 students attended the schools within a quarter mile of the highest levels of pesticide application.

Of the decision to list chlorpyrifos as a developmental toxicant, Gorospe said, “It’s a step in the right direction.” She hopes the ruling will help lead to a statewide ban of chlorpyrifos.

“We are really hoping that California will use this expertise from the Prop 65 committee to take much stronger measures,” said Cox.

*The article has been corrected. It initially stated that the change would be effective in November 2018 due to an error in introduced in editing process. 


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