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

By Sally Kuzemchak
Updated July 22, 2019
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Four years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed banning one of the most widely used conventional pesticides, saying it couldn’t determine whether exposure to the chemical was safe. But the Trump administration has reversed that ban, alarming pediatricians who say it’s harmful to children’s brains.

Chlorpyrifos is sprayed on about 50 different foods, including corn, soybeans, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, fruit trees, and nuts.

When the Trump administration first proposed reversing the ban in 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) issued a joint letter to the EPA, expressing their concern. "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."

They said that science shows in-utero exposure is associated with developmental delays and 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 in 2016, the EPA itself stated that there was "sufficient evidence of neurodevelopment effects" occurring at exposure levels below the threshold for toxicity. The risks are greatest for people who live near (or work on) farms using it.

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

But the EPA says that objections to the pesticide related to neurotoxicity “are not supported by valid, complete, and reliable evidence”. They’ve also argued that the pesticide is crucial to U.S. agriculture. They say they’ll continue to examine the evidence about the pesticide, completing their review by 2022. In the meantime, Hawaii has banned the use of chlorpyrifos, and other states are trying to ban it, including California (a major agricultural state) and New York. Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand has also proposed legislation that would ban chlorpyrifos from school meals.

So 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 food, 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.

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