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EPA Ban on Brain-Damaging Pesticide Follows Maryland's Lead


In Maryland over the last three years, there was a back-and-forth political battle between Republican Governor Larry Hogan and the Democratic-majority state legislature over a controversial insecticide called chlorpyrifos.

Farmers have sprayed the pesticide widely on fruits and vegetables since the 1960s. But the EPA banned its spraying indoors for pest control in 2000 because a growing amount of scientific evidence shows that it can cause brain damage and developmental delays in children.

In 2018, Democratic lawmakers in Maryland, led in part by State Delegate Dana Stein of Baltimore County, proposed a complete state ban on chlorpyrifos because the Trump Administration refused to take action against the pesticide’s use on crops.

That proposal was voted down amid protests from Maryland’s powerful farm lobby, which has a history of fighting all restrictions on pesticides and fertilizers. In 2020, a state ban finally passed both the House and Senate – but was promptly vetoed by Governor Hogan.

Instead, under pressure from state lawmakers who threatened a veto-override, Hogan’s Department of Agriculture issued regulations that would gradually phase out the brain-damaging chemical by June 30, 2021.

That action made Maryland one of only two states – along with, later, New York – to ban all uses of chlorpyrifos.

Much of the rest of the country caught up with Maryland last week, when the Biden Administration announced that it is banning the pesticide on all food crops across the U.S.

State Delegate Stein is vice chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee. He said the move made it crystal clear that Biden’s EPA will be different than Trump’s EPA, which not only green-lighted chlorpyrifos but weakened or eliminated more than 100 environmental regulations.

“I think it’s a signal that regulation by the EPA in the interest of public health and the environment is back,” Stein said. “That certainly will be a sea-change from the last four years. It’s good to know you have regulators at the EPA who will pay attention to science.”

Ruth Berlin is founder of the Maryland Pesticide Education Network.

“We applaud EPA for protecting our nation’s children and farmworkers and for ensuring that our children are no longer eating food that’s poisoned with chlorpyrifos,” Berlin said. “That can actually damage the brains of our children, causing all kinds of developmental disorders.”

The new national rules are actually weaker than Maryland’s, because they still allow the pesticide to be used in non-food applications, such as on golf courses, utility poles, and fence posts as well as in cockroach bait and ant treatments.

More broadly, a lingering problem is that there is a whole category of similar pesticides – called organophosphates, including malathion and acephate – that are still being sprayed on crops in Maryland and nationally and that also likely cause neurological damage in children.

This is according to Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a public health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Among other problems, higher rates of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD have been linked by scientists to childrens’ exposure to organophosphates, Rotkin-Ellman said.

“EPA themselves has said there’s enough evidence to consider all of them (organophosphates) dangerous to children’s brain development,” Rotkin-Ellman said. “They said that we have significant enough evidence to make that determination. EPA itself did a literature review a number of years ago, and leading scientists have published reviews of that science and made that very recommendation: That organophosphates are too dangerous to be used in the field and be used in the food supply.”

So Rotkin-Ellman and others are now advocating for EPA, Maryland and other states to take the next step, and ban all organophosphate pesticides, because there are less toxic alternatives – including a shift to pesticide-free organic food.


The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at [email protected].