LIHUE — California followed in Hawaii’s footsteps on Wednesday in moving to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, used to combat insects on more than 60 different crops in the state.
The ban is expected to take six months to two years to take effect. Hawaii’s ban takes effect January 2022 and New York recently moved to ban the chemical by Dec. 1, 2021. Other states that are working on a chlorpyrifos ban are Oregon, Connecticut and New Jersey.
States are banning the pesticide because some studies have found it’s linked to harming brain development in babies.
A 2012 study by the University of California, Berkeley found that 87 percent of umbilical-cord blood samples tested from newborn babies contained detectable levels of the pesticide.
Chlorpyrifos is in a class of organophosphates, chemically similar to a nerve gas developed by Nazi Germany before World War II. Its heavy use has often left traces in drinking water sources.
“This is a historic victory for California’s agricultural communities and for children nationwide,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The science clearly shows that chlorpyrifos is too dangerous to use in our fields. Since California uses more chlorpyrifos than any other state, this ban will not only protect kids who live here, but kids who eat the fruits and veggies grown here.”
DowDuPont, which produces the pesticide, says the move could hurt farmers’ ability to protect their crops.
“It’s a very important part of the crop protection tool box,” said Casey Creamer, president of California Citrus Mutual, which represents 5,000 growers. “We’re fighting for our lives here trying to protect ourselves from deadly diseases, and we keep losing tools.”
Chlorpyrifos was banned nationwide for indoor use in 2000. A more extensive nationwide ban was considered and a phaseout of the pesticide enacted under the Obama administration, but that was reversed under President Donald Trump.
California Environmental Secretary Jared Blumenfeld said that decision motivated California to take their own steps toward a ban.
In Hawaii, however, the chlorpyrifos conversation started on Kauai, with a group of concerned citizens in Kapaa who were concerned about exposure to children. That turned into Bill 2491, a controversial pesticide ban, introduced by then-councilmember Gary Hooser in 2013.
That bill passed and mandated agrichemical companies establish buffer zones around schools and sensitive places, and to disclose pesticide use to the public. Then, in 2014, a federal judge declared the measure invalid. It was removed from Kauai’s books in 2017.
Throughout that time, citizens and officials didn’t stop their work to control pesticide use, including chlorpyrifos. In 2016, a joint fact-finding report was released, which pointed out a lack of information on health statistics on Kauai’s west side.
The conversation moved to the statewide realm in 2018 when Hawaii decided to ban chlorpyrifos.
Dr. Gina Solomon, a medical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and former deputy secretary of Cal-EPA, said chlorpyrifos is unusual in that it’s one of the best-understood pesticides. That’s because it’s been so extensively studied.
“We know a lot about what it does to developing children, and that science is the bedrock of the action that Cal-EPA is announcing,” she said. “Many pesticides have been studied well in lab rats, but in this case, we actually know what it does to people.”
Studies in cities where the pesticide was once used to kill cockroaches indoors and in rural farmworker communities, showed it harmed brain development in fetuses. Those studies showed it affected reading ability, IQ and led to hyperactivity in children, Solomon said. Even head sizes were smaller in children whose mothers were exposed to the pesticide.
While the ban — technically known as a cancellation — could take up to two years to take effect, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation has recommended that county agriculture commissioners adopt stricter rules on where and how the chemical can be applied, including larger buffer zones.
Use of the pesticide has been reduced by more than half in California since 2005, to just under 1 million pounds used on crops in 2016, the state says.
To help farmers make the transition away from chlorpyrifos, California is adding contributing $5.7 million to the development of safer alternatives.
While most environmental groups applauded the announcement, Earthjustice said it would continue pushing legislation to ban the chemical because it questions whether the Department of Pesticide Regulation will follow through.
“It’s been like pulling teeth to force DPR to begin the cancellation process for chlorpyrifos,” said Greg Loarie, an Earthjustice attorney. “Until we know that chlorpyrifos is gone for good, we are going to keep pushing as hard as we can in as many places as we can.”
Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this story.