While independent research shows that Chlorpyrifos, a Dow Chemical insecticide used in Kaua‘i’s GMO fields, can cause significant harm to children nearby, Dow is intent on convincing the EPA otherwise.
by Paul Koberstein
The bodies and minds of children living on the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i are being threatened by exposure to chlorpyrifos, a synthetic insecticide that is heavily sprayed on fields located near their homes and schools.
For decades, researchers have been publishing reports about children who died or were maimed after exposure to chlorpyrifos, either in the womb or after birth. While chlorpyrifos can no longer legally be used around the house or in the garden, it is still legal to use on the farm. But researchers are finding that children aren’t safe when the insecticide is applied to nearby fields.
Like a ghost drifting through a child’s bedroom window, the airborne insecticide can settle on children’s skin, clothes, toys, rugs, and furnishings.
In fact, it’s likely that the only people who needn’t worry about exposure to chlorpyrifos are adults living far from the fields in which it is sprayed. That includes civil servants who work for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates the stuff, and executives with Dow Chemical, the company that manufactures it.
In a regulatory process known as re-registration, the EPA will decide in 2015 whether it still agrees that chlorpyrifos is safe for farming, or whether it will order a complete ban, as Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Pesticide Action Network have demanded in lawsuits filed in 2007 and in 2014.
Dow has long insisted that its chlorpyrifos products are safe, despite tens of thousands of reports of acute poisoning and multiple studies linking low-level exposures to children with lower IQ. The company also has a long history—going back decades—of concealing from the public the many health problems it knew were linked to chlorpyrifos.
In 1995, the EPA found that Dow had violated federal law by covering up its knowledge of these health problems for years. In 2004, then-New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer found that Dow had been lying about the known dangers of the pesticide in its advertising for nearly as long. Together, the EPA and the State of New York have levied fines against the company approaching $3 million.
On Kaua‘i, subsidiaries of four transnational chemical companies—Dow Chemical, DuPont, Syngenta, and BASF—spray chlorpyrifos and several other potent pesticides to protect their experimental genetically engineered crops (GMOs) against a wide variety of bugs and weeds. Because of the heavy pesticide use, Kaua‘i’s GMO testing fields are among the most toxic chemical environments in all of American agriculture. The island, with its precious ecosystems and diverse wildlife, seems particularly ill-suited to be a laboratory for such experiments.
In two incidents in 2006 and 2008, all students at the Waimea Middle School on Kaua‘i were evacuated and about 60 were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms like dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Many people in town blamed the outbreak on chlorpyrifos dust and vapors that they believed had drifted from the nearby GMO test fields. The corporations denied that any illnesses were caused by their products and officials only tested for a few of the possible chemicals that could have contaminated the school and children.
The companies conduct their experiments on Kaua‘i because it has a 12-month growing season, and they can get in three or four crops each year. As Steve Savage, a former research manager for DuPont, has stated that they protect their GMO crops with chemicals to protect their large investments.
“The pesticides used on the seed farms are mostly just there to protect these very valuable seeds from pest damage,” he said. “That is more challenging because there is no winter to set-back the populations of things like insects. Some of the tropical weeds are also very challenging to control.”
There’s no doubt that chlorpyrifos is efficient at killing insects. But the question before the EPA re-registration process is, “What is it doing to children?”
The EPA’s Tepid Investigation of Dow
The last time chlorpyrifos went through the re-registration process was in 2000. (The EPA is required to do that every 15 years.) At the time, Dow was fighting off several lawsuits from families with children poisoned by the chemical. It also faced an almost certain regulatory crackdown by the EPA. A large number of children and adults were being poisoned by more than 800 different chlorpyrifos-containing products that were commonly used around the house, including Dursban, Raid, Black Flag Liquid Roach and Ant Killer and Hartz Mountain Flea and Tick Collar. Chlorpyrifos applied by pest control operators also often led to serious health effects.
Under the terms of an agreement between Dow and the EPA, chlorpyrifos products for indoor use were taken off store shelves at the end of 2001 and were banned in schools, parks, and at day care centers. They continued to be used on the farm under the trade name Lorsban.
Dow Chemical started selling chlorpyrifos in 1965. In 1972, when the EPA banned DDT and other bug-killers, chlorpyrifos was there to take their place. There was a time when chlorpyrifos was invited into most homes in America on a daily basis. Approximately 21 to 24 million pounds were used annually in the U.S., of which about 11 million pounds were applied in the home, where the chemical’s main job was to kill termites.
Because of its extensive use in the home before the ban in 2000, the vast majority of the U.S. population was exposed to chlorpyrifos or its environmental breakdown product, trichloropyridinol (TCP). A 1998 Minnesota Children’s Exposure Study found that 92 percent of the 89 children evaluated had measurable amounts of TCP in their urine. A 1998 study of 416 children in North and South Carolina found TCP in the urine of all the children evaluated.
Chlorpyrifos belongs to a class of pesticides known as organophosphates, which are designed to interfere with the way insect brains operate. They can also interfere with human brains. Some people are more sensitive to chlorpyrifos based on their genes, according to the EPA ].
A 2000 EPA review of “incidents” caused by chlorpyrifos notes, “Children under six were three times more likely to be hospitalized, five times more likely to be admitted for critical care in an intensive care unit (ICU), and three times more likely to have experienced a life-threatening outcome or death when exposed to an organophosphate than when exposed to non-organophosphate pesticides.”
By 1984, the number of chlorpyrifos poisonings in the home had begun to rise, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.