The Scoop on Food

Pediatricians Are Protesting as the EPA Reverses Pesticide Ban

The safety of a commonly used pesticide is under scrutiny, especially in kids and pregnant women. Here's what you should know. 

EPA pesticide ban reversal Humpback_Whale/Shutterstock 

It's the most widely used conventional pesticide, sprayed on about 50 different food crops. But in 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed banning chlorpyrifos, saying it couldn't determine whether exposure to the chemical was safe. Now, under a new administration, the EPA has reversed that proposal—and that has the American Academy of Pediatrics alarmed.

Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) issued a joint letter to Scott Pruitt, the EPA's administrator, expressing their concern that the proposal to ban chlorpyrifos had been tabled.

"Children are not small adults – they have key neurological, physical, developmental, and behavioral differences from adults that make them uniquely vulnerable to chemical exposures," they wrote. "There is a wealth of science demonstrating the detrimental effects of chlorpyrifos exposure to developing fetuses, infants, children, and pregnant women."

According to the letter, that science includes findings that in-utero exposure is associated with developmental delays and research showing that toddlers with higher exposure to the pesticide were found to be delayed in motor and mental development, more likely to be on the autism spectrum, and more likely to have ADHD-like symptoms. In fact, in a risk assessment done last year, the EPA stated that there was "sufficient evidence of neurodevelopment effects" occurring at exposure levels below the threshold for toxicity.

"There's enough evidence showing that something should be done," says Jennifer Lowry, M.D., chair of the AAP's Council on Environmental Health and Chief of Medical Toxicology at Children's Mercy Kansas City.

In 2000, chlorpyrifos was banned for in-home use, except in child-resistant ant and roach baits. It's currently permitted on food crops, though, including fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

The EPA's new leadership says the science needs to be further reviewed and that the pesticide is crucial to U.S. agriculture. "We need to provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos, while still protecting human health and the environment," Pruitt said in an EPA news release. "By reversing the previous Administration's steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making—rather than predetermined results." The EPA says it will continue to review the science and complete its assessment by 2022.

In the meantime, what can you do if you're concerned? Dr. Lowry says that washing produce is always smart—and that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables still outweigh the risks of pesticides. You can also buy organic, though few families can afford an all-organic diet. But parents also have the power to make change, she says, pointing to the ban on BPA (a chemical that was used in cans and plastic bottles), which was jumpstarted by public outcry. So if you're worried about this pesticide, let your representatives know. "Be vocal," says Dr. Lowry. "Grassroots efforts can lead the way."

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.