A recent column in The Garden Island stated that many of the bills concerning pesticides at the Hawaii State legislature this year are just stealthy ways to attack genetically engineered crops.
This type of argument does a great disservice to science, to the medical profession, and to the general public. It is time for us to move past the red-shirt, blue-shirt, pro-GMO, and anti-GMO ideological divisions. The bills regarding chlorpyrifos are not a stealthy attack on GE crops, but they are an example of how science is made muddy by politics.
Chlorpyrifos is an insecticide. It kills insects by disrupting nerve cells. Physicians who serve in the House and in the Senate introduced the two main bills proposing to ban chlorpyrifos. They present in their bills the ever-increasing evidence that even at very low levels of exposure, chlorpyrifos may injure the brains of unborn babies and children.
Studies have shown exposure to come through food and nearby agricultural spraying. Because of ongoing health concerns, chlorpyrifos has already been banned for household use (except for bait traps). Chlorpyrifos is also considered dangerous for farm workers. It is the chemical that sent the Syngenta employees recently to the hospital. Both the EPA and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have called for a nationwide ban on chlorpyrifos.
Genetic engineering can be an important tool in both medicine and food production. In medicine, biotechnology has made it possible to create miraculous new cancer treatments and several new vaccines. In agriculture, genetic engineering has played a role in saving the papaya crop in Hawaii and as the science improves there definitely is promise in the field.
The AAP has not, in any of its copious literature on the danger of pesticides, called for a ban on the science of genetic engineering. The EPA’s own scientific committee recommended in 2016 that chlorpyrifos be banned.
Trump’s appointment to the EPA, Scott Pruitt, overruled the proposed ban.
The EPA certainly is not anti-genetic engineering. Seventeen healthcare providers from Kauai submitted a joint letter in favor of a statewide ban of chlorpyrifos. None of the healthcare providers from Kauai (to my knowledge) are mounting a “stealthy attack” against GMO farming.
We are just stating strongly that the scientific evidence has become very clear that pesticide intensive farming must be monitored and regulated and that if certain pesticides are found to be particularly dangerous, they should be banned.
So where can we go from here? I do hope that some of the bills concerning regulation of pesticides pass. It is very obvious though, that throwing pesticide regulation into the political arena is a recipe for anti-scientific rhetoric from all sides. California has a very robust farming economy and some of the strictest pesticide regulations in the country.
They have done this by removing pesticides from control by the legislative bodies. Instead they have a Department of Pesticide Regulation. My understanding is that it collects continuous data, does its best to rise above the politics, and makes rules based on the best available scientific evidence.
The result is a new a quarter-mile ban on spraying during school hours for most types of agricultural spraying and mandatory statewide reporting of what is being sprayed and where it’s being applied. They have not yet banned chlorpyrifos but they are looking at increased restrictions.
Whatever we are doing to create a dialogue and meaningful legislation concerning pesticides is obviously not working. Let’s find a new way to speak with each other, respect the science, and make appropriate regulations to ensure both the health of our communities and the viability of agriculture in Hawaii.
Lee A. Evslin, MD, was the former CEO of Kauai Medical Clinic and Wilcox Hospital. He recently served on the state-commissioned task force which examined pesticide use on Kauai. His column covers recent research on health issues.