Farmers across the country were relieved last March when the Trump administration reversed a decision to take a widely used agricultural insecticide off the market.
Without it, said Sleepy Eye, Minn., farmer Cole Trebesch, he probably wouldn’t even try growing soybeans.
But Bonnie Wirtz, who ended up in the emergency room six years ago after a crop duster sprayed the chemical over her Melrose, Minn., home, finds it heartbreaking that the government still will allow the sale of an insecticide that dozens of scientific studies have found to be toxic to children.
“If I almost died, then what is the long-term impact for my child?” she said.
Her son, who was an infant at the time, now has a neurodevelopmental disorder, one of the health risks that inspired the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to propose a ban in the first place.
Nowhere in the country will the government’s reversal be felt more profoundly than in Minnesota. The chemical, chlorpyrifos, already is the largest selling insecticide in the state — farmers spread almost a million pounds of it last year across Minnesota lands — and is likely to remain the primary weapon in their battle against insects.
That’s especially true for soybeans, Minnesota’s second-leading commodity, which is increasingly vulnerable to an invasive aphid that is becoming resistant to other chemicals.
“They can take a third of your yield away,” Trebesch said. “That’s your profitability.”
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Even though farmers must follow strict rules in applying chlorpyrifos, it is nonetheless polluting the state’s waters. About 10 of Minnesota’s lakes and streams are or soon will be listed by state regulators as impaired by chlorpyrifos, a number that could grow. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has named it one of three “pesticides of concern” because of its powerful toxicity to wildlife.
And on windy days, in the tiny farming towns in the central part of the state, some mothers call their children in from the backyard when they see a crop duster coming.
After hearing concerns from those communities, the Minnesota Department of Health is planning a study to measure how much chlorpyrifos rural children carry in their bodies, part of a larger survey of contaminants in children.
“Chlorpyrifos is ... causing harm to the most vulnerable in our population — unborn children, infants and young children,” said Bob Shimek, a community activist for the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, who was among those who asked the Health Department to conduct the study. “This EPA will soon have the reputation of protecting the polluter, not the environment.”
After a decade of pressure from environmental groups, court fights, and regulatory and scientific reviews, the Obama administration was ready to take chlorpyrifos off the market last year, citing risks to wildlife, drinking water and, most important, children.
In a 2000 agreement with the chemical industry, the EPA banned its use in household insecticides and has restricted its use on certain vegetables since then. In 2016, the agency compiled a summary of health effects in humans drawn from a dozen or so studies, including research on children.
Kids with more exposure to the chemical were more likely to have developmental and physical delays and attention deficit disorders. Other studies have found that fetuses exposed to the chemical through their mother’s blood — especially near farms — are more likely to grow up with autism and reduced intelligence, perceptual reasoning and memory.
The agency found that some one- to two-year-olds who ate a lot of food grown with chlorpyrifos could get 140 times more of the chemical than is considered safe from their diet alone. It’s widely used on fruit, vegetables, wheat and other food crops.
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The EPA concluded that while uncertainties remain, there is “sufficient evidence” that children experience neurodevelopmental effects even at low levels of exposure.
But early this year, in the weeks before the ban was to take effect, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s new EPA administrator, met with representatives from the Washington State Farm Bureau, who said they desperately needed chlorpyrifos to protect their crops. Pruitt promised a new day for the agency’s relationship with agriculture, according to documents and emails compiled by the New York Times through a public records request.
And in March, Pruitt overruled his staff scientists, rescinding the ban while the scientific analysis continues until 2022.
In an interview this year, Pruitt said he based his decision on an assertion by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the EPA’s analysis inflated the risks.
Dow Chemical, the maker of chlorpyrifos, also has disputed the science and the EPA’s conclusions. The company says that restrictions and guidelines on how to use it safely have improved over time, and that if used as directed on the label, health risks are minimal.