Corteva Agriscience to stop making pesticide linked to brain damage

The main manufacturer of a pesticide used for decades on a wide array of crops, including strawberries, corn and citrus, said Thursday it will stop making the product, which some activists have said is linked to neurological problems in children.

Corteva Agriscience, the nation’s largest producer of chlorpyrifos, said the decision was driven by financial considerations, not safety concerns.

“It’s a tough decision for us to make, but we don’t feel like it’s viable going forward,” Susanne Wasson, Corteva’s president of crop protection, said in an interview. “It was a business decision.”

The announcement came the same day that California, a leading agricultural state, made it illegal to sell chlorphyrifos. It is one of a growing number of states that have moved to block the pesticide from the market.

Corteva—formerly known as Dow AgroSciences—noted that demand for the pesticide, which it has sold for more than a half-century, is less than 20% of what it was at its peak in the 1990s.

Wasson added that the company, which has major operations in Indianapolis, stands behind the safety of the pesticide. The product has been widely studied since it was first introduced in 1965, and farmers should still be able to use it as a important tool to fight certain pests, she said.

The announcement marks a victory for public health and environmental advocates, who have fought for years to ban chlorpyrifos, saying the compound poses unwarranted health risks, particularly to farm workers and children. But activists on Thursday said that fight would continue, given that other companies still produce the pesticide and the federal government has allowed it to remain on the market.

“We definitely see this as a win,” Marisa Ordonia, a senior associate attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental group that has sued in federal court seeking to force the U.S. government to ban chlorpyrifos. “But we are still in the fight for a full ban, so that children and farm workers will no longer be exposed to it.”

But the Trump administration has refused to ban the pesticide, arguing that the science linking chlorpyrifos to health problems, such as neurological impacts in children and respiratory problems in adults, remains unresolved and in need of further study.

Under President Barack Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency initially proposed revoking all uses of chlorpyrifos in 2015 after its scientists determined that existing evidence did not meet the agency’s threshold of a “reasonable certainty of no harm.”

It later supported a ban on the use of chlorpyrifos on food—a response to a petition filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Pesticide Action Network North America.

But the chemical industry has argued that the EPA relied on a flawed analysis, in part because it heavily weighted a single epidemiological study conducted by Columbia University.

Jim Aidala, a consultant for Corteva who served as EPA’s associate administrator for pesticides and toxics under Bill Clinton, said in an interview that because the Obama administration made a decision on chlorpyrifos just before Trump took office, the science it relied on “never got fully vetted.” The Agriculture Department also raised concerns about the methodology EPA scientists had used in determining that chlorpyrifos posed serious health risks.

Facing a court-ordered deadline in March 2017, the EPA’s then-administrator, Scott Pruitt, rejected the agency’s own analysis, citing a need to “provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos.” He argued at the time that the “public record lays out serious scientific concerns and substantive process gaps in the proposal.”

“The science on chlorpyrifos is clear and unambiguous, and it has no place on our food or in our fields. With this announcement, the writing is truly on the wall,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who is among more than a dozens senators to back legislation to ban chlorpyrifos, said in a statement Thursday. “The only question now is whether the Trump administration will finally stop doing the bidding of big corporations and start putting the health and safety of our children and farmworkers first.”

The chemical compound has been used by farmers to kill pests on a wide variety of crops including broccoli, strawberries and citrus. The EPA banned its spraying indoors to combat household bugs more than a decade ago. But only in more recent years did the agency seek to halt its use in agriculture, after mounting concerns that prenatal exposure can pose risks to fetal brain and nervous system development.

In California, state health officials said their decision to ban chlorpyrifos came amid increasing scientific evidence that the pesticide “causes serious health effects in children and other sensitive populations at lower levels of exposure than previously understood.” At the time, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, also proposed $5.7 million to support the transition to “safer, more sustainable alternatives,” according to the California Environmental Protection Agency.

Under an agreement reached last fall between the state and pesticide manufacturers, it became illegal on Thursday to sell the pesticide and growers will no longer be allowed to possess or use products with the chemical after the end of this year.

Removing chlorpyrifos from the toolbox of chemical agribusiness in California is the kind of aggressive action elected leaders must take to safeguard public health,” Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an activist group that has pushed for the ban, said in a statement. “Farmworkers, children and other Californians will no longer be exposed to a dangerous chemical that can permanently impair the brain and nervous systems. If only President [Donald] Trump’s EPA had listened to its own scientists and not blocked a federal ban of chlorpyrifos, millions of other kids would enjoy the same protections.”

In 2018, Hawaii became the first state to ban pesticides containing chlorpyrifos; its prohibition will take effect in 2022. New York lawmakers also approved legislation to ban the pesticide by late 2021. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, vetoed that legislation late last year, but he directed the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to phase in a ban in coming months through a public rulemaking.

Lawmakers in other states, including Maryland, have proposed similar bans. The European Union also has voted to phase out the pesticide.

“Many of those are political decisions, not science-based decisions,” Wasson said Thursday, adding that the company plans to back the EPA in its ongoing legal fight to keep chlorpyrifos on the market. “It’s the right thing to do for farmers.”

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