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Farm Lobby Scuttles Bill to Ban Brain-Damaging Insecticide

University of Maryland Extension Service

For the second year in a row, lawmakers in the Maryland House of Delegates voted to approve a bill that would outlaw an insecticide called chlorpyrifos. Farmers spray the chemical on apples, peaches and other fruits, but scientists have linked the pesticide to brain damage in children.

Delegate Dana Stein of Baltimore County, vice chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, sponsored the legislation that would ban chlorpyrifos.

“It’s been well documented in various scientific studies, including the EPA’s own studies, that this can cause neurological damage to children and infants,” said Stein.  “It’s hazardous to the farm workers who use it. And it’s harmful not just to people. It’s also been found to damage wildlife and aquatic life.”

The ban on the insecticide passed the House by a vote of 90 to 44 on March 15 – before it ran into trouble in the Senate.  The measure had been supported by many public health physicians and environmental organizations, which have compared the toxicity of chlorpyrifos to that of lead.

Scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency itself – which regulates pesticides – recommended a ban on the insecticide in 2015. But that proposal was overridden by a Trump Administration’s political appointee, Scott Pruitt, in 2017.

Fighting fiercely against the proposed ban at the Maryland level has been the farm lobby, which opposes almost all regulations on pesticides with the argument that restrictions can hurt farmers financially. The manufacturer of the pesticide, Dow DuPont Chemical, also testified against the ban during a hearing in the Maryland House last month.

Here’s Rich Deadwyler, a lobbyist for DowDuPont.  “Chlorpyrifos is approved by regulatory agencies in about 90 countries, including all of our major trading partners,” Deadwyler said. “And this product is well studied and researched, with over 4,000 studies and reports. Chlorpyrifos is an important tool for our farmers.”

Last year, Maryland fruit growers opposing the ban argued that they needed the insecticide to fight an invasive species, the spotted lanternfly, which had infested apple orchards in Pennsylvania. But this argument was undermined this year when Penn State University scientists in January said that  chlorpyrifos is not among their recommended insecticides for controlling the lanternfly because there are less toxic alternatives.

Regardless, the Maryland Farm Bureau fought hard against the ban on chlorpyrifos, claiming that outlawing one pesticide could lead to a slippery slope of banning more.

“In Maryland, there are 13,000 pesticides that are registered at the Department of Agriculture,” said Valerie Connolly, Executive Director of the Maryland Farm Bureau. “If we start down this road, and we are going to look at this one this year, and another one next year, that’s a lot of chemicals to get through.”

In other words, she was saying that modern farming is so addicted to chemicals, we shouldn’t even look into the medicine cabinet.

In the end, the farm lobby won.  Its opposition to the chlorpyrifos ban convinced Democratic leaders of the state Senate to kill the legislation on Monday night. Democratic leaders said they feared that – with less than a week left in the legislative session – a protracted battle with both Republican and Democratic allies of the farm lobby would consume all the time available for what some Democrats regarded as a higher priority: trying to win approval of more school funding.

Of course, the chlorpyrifos ban bill would have also helped school children, by preventing them from suffering brain damage from the fruit they eat. But unfortunately, the political influence of industry is a powerful toxin in our body politic.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.