Stink Grows Over Chlorpyrifos

SUBHEAD: The pesticide was blamed by some — and dismissed by others — as the source of health issues at Waimea Canyon Middle School. The EPA’s proposed ban could eliminate any future school impacts.

By Paul Achitoff on 13 January 2016 for Civil Beat -

Image above: Red dust laden with pesticide residue blows up from a GMO test field near town of Waimea on Kauai, Hawaii. Photo by Klayton Kubo. From (

Two years ago, Civil Beat posted a piece I wrote about chlorpyrifos, a pesticide (also known as Dursban and Lorsban) the agrichemical companies on Kauai use on their biotech crops as much or more than any other.

This is the pesticide investigators found in every sample taken at Waimea Canyon Middle School after dozens of schoolchildren complaining of disorientation, severe headaches and nausea repeatedly were taken to the hospital—the investigation that notoriously concluded their symptoms were probably due to exposure to stinkweed.

I pointed out that chlorpyrifos, a potent neurotoxin, can permanently lower a child’s IQ.

Organophosphates, such as chlorpyrifos, work by blocking an enzyme that controls messages that travel between nerve cells. When the enzyme is blocked, this causes overstimulation of neuronal cells, neurotoxicity and eventually death.

It operates the same way in people.

But peer-reviewed studies establish that even short-term exposure to chlorpyrifos can cause permanent injury.

A Harvard study states, for instance, “Dose-related correlations were recorded between maternal exposures to chlorpyrifos or other organophosphates and small head circumference at birth — which is an indication of slowed brain growth in utero — and with neurobehavioural deficits that have persisted to at least 7 years of age. …MRI of the brain showed that prenatal chlorpyrifos exposure was associated with structural abnormalities that included thinning of the cerebral cortex.”

In other words, the science establishes that children born to mothers exposed to this pesticide had brain damage.

A reply was quickly forthcoming from Steve Savage, a former employee of DuPont (parent of Pioneer) and Mycogen, a Dow subsidiary. Savage criticized me for misinforming the public and fear-mongering. Savage often writes for the Genetic Literacy Project, which promotes pesticides and genetic engineering and accuses critics of being “anti-science” as well as “illiterate.”

Savage compared chlorpyrifos to caffeine and aspirin and assured readers its use is safe. This belittling of concerns and “anti-science” meme from industry bloggers has become a familiar industry tactic.

More recently, Civil Beat published an article by public relations professional Jan TenBruggencate. TenBruggencate (also Board Chair of the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative) completely misunderstood the relevant circumstances at Waimea Canyon School, noting that no Roundup had been sprayed before the incidents, although I’m not aware of anyone familiar with the matter ever suggesting that Roundup had been the problem.

TenBruggencate never mentioned chlorpyrifos or that it had been detected on site. Despite being uninformed (I’m assuming this was not intentional misdirection), he declared that stinkweed had “launched Kauai’s pesticide wars,” plainly suggesting that those suspecting a toxic pesticide was the problem — or perhaps any problem at all on Kauai — are sadly ignorant.

Against this background, it’s noteworthy, first, that EPA banned all household uses of chlorpyrifos 15 years ago because it’s too toxic to allow children to be exposed to it. Then in December 2014, EPA acknowledged the extensive body of peer-reviewed science correlating chlorpyrifos exposure with brain damage to children, including reduced IQ, delayed development, and loss of working memory.

Two months ago EPA, apparently not persuaded that chlorpyrifos is no more harmful than caffeine or aspirin, proposed to go much further and revoke all tolerances for the pesticide. This hopefully will end not only all uses of chlorpyrifos resulting in residues on food and contamination of drinking water, but those resulting in drift to schools, homes and other places people are located, as well.

The public comment period on this proposal closed on Jan. 5; along with 80,000 other comments urging EPA to ban the pesticide, the agency received a letter from more than 65 environmental health scientists and healthcare professionals, citing extensive evidence that chlorpyrifos harms children.

I wouldn’t be very surprised if our “Good Neighbors,” the chemical companies on Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Oahu, are at this moment energetically lobbying EPA to exempt them from any action the agency ultimately takes to further restrict chlorpyrifos use, arguing that the voluminous scientific evidence is somehow inadequate and directing their attorneys to challenge any restriction that costs them anything.

No matter how strong the scientific evidence is that chlorpyrifos presents an unreasonable threat to health, I wouldn’t be very surprised if the biotech industry’s bloggers don’t assure you that all of this concern is just more anti-science fear-mongering — that the real problem clearly is stinkweed.


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