Neurotoxins on your kid's broccoli: that's life under Trump

Carey Gillam
Photograph: Fuse/Getty Images

How much is your child’s health worth? The answer coming from the leadership of the US Environmental Protection Agency is: not that much.

The EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, this week confirmed what many Americans already know: when the Trump administration weighs the competing interests of corporate profits versus public health, the corporations win, hands down.

Wheeler announced Thursday that despite what independent scientists say is a wealth of evidence tying the popular insecticide known as chlorpyrifos to neurodevelopmental damage in children, the pesticide should continue to be applied by farmers to foods that children regularly consume, including apples, grapes, broccoli and cherries. That decision comes even though residues of the chemical in food and water are among the exposures known by scientists to contribute to a range of cognitive problems in kids, such as a reduced IQ. Studies have shown that even pregnant women’s exposure can have an impact on their children.

Related: Trump administration won't ban pesticide tied to childhood brain damage

Wheeler said the data showing harm was not complete or “reliable”, and the agency would continue to monitor the issue for at least three more years.

That position contradicts the EPA’s stance four years ago, when it said that it could no longer back the safety of the insecticide in food and drinking water as is required under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The scientific evidence warranted a ban from agricultural use just as the chemical was banned from household use nearly two decades ago because of the known dangers, the agency found.

The move to ban chlorpyrifos from agricultural use was strongly opposed by the Dow Chemical Co, which has been selling chlorpyrifos products since 1965. But it wasn’t until early 2017 that the company found a sympathetic ear in Washington, when Donald Trump assumed the presidency. Dow and its chemical industry lobbyists wasted no time using their money and their messaging to lean on the new administration with a request to keep the profitable pesticide on the market. A $1m donation from Dow for the Trump inaugural fund didn’t hurt.

Dow and chemical industry lobbyists argued that chlorpyrifos was a “critical pest management tool” for farmers and said the science showing harm was insufficient to warrant a ban.

The talking points were adopted by the administration even as health and environmental advocates, including the American Academy for Pediatrics, warned that continued use of the chemical put our country’s future generations in danger. Developing fetuses, infants, children and pregnant women are at the most risk.

And if the science showing harm to children is not enough to warrant public outrage, there also is a wealth of scientific evidence showing that chlorpyrifos adversely affects many critically endangered animals.

Several states are already banning or moving to ban chlorpyrifos, including Hawaii and New York.

Litigation over the issue led a federal appeals court to order the EPA to issue a final ruling, which Wheeler did this week. And though the announcement came as no surprise to the scientists and health professionals who have been following the issue, it cemented for many a deep sense of foreboding about what the future holds when science is scorned for the sake of placating a corporate profit agenda.

“The economic and human health impacts are substantial and real,” Dr Leonardo Trasande, who directs the division of environmental pediatrics within the department of pediatrics at New York University’s Langone Health, told me. The EPA decision to continue to allow chlorpyrifos into American diets is “emblematic” of a broad dismissal of scientific evidence related to human health issues, in his view. Attacks on scientific norms are likely to continue unabated, he warned.

So here we are – with scientific concerns for the safety of our innocent and vulnerable children on one side and powerful, wealthy corporate players on the other. Our political and regulatory leaders have shown whose interests they value most.

  • Carey Gillam is a journalist and author, and a public interest researcher for US Right to Know, a not-for-profit food industry research group