A pesticide applicator sprays soybeans in rural McLean County in Illinois on July 26, 2017. Credit: Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Each year, farmers across the United States spray millions of pounds of pesticides that are linked to brain damage in children, Parkinson’s disease, endocrine issues and the decline of insect and bird populations. 

A new bill introduced in Congress earlier this month could change that. 

Called the Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act of 2020, the bill provides a framework for fixing what sponsors Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colorado) dub America’s “broken and outdated” pesticide regulatory system. 

Under the Federal Insecticide, Rodenticide and Fungicide Act, the nation’s top law regulating pesticides, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has significant latitude in approving which chemicals can be sprayed, Udall said. 

“The EPA has been coming down on the side of industry profits and against the health of children, farmworkers, families and the environment,” Udall said in a recent press event.

The bill would close loopholes in the bill and would trigger full safety reviews of pesticides banned in the European Union or Canada. More than 70 different pesticides banned in Europe are allowed to be sprayed in the United States, according to the bill. 

“It’s time to put our children ahead of the chemical industry,” he said.

The bill would also ban the organophosphate and neonicotinoid classes of insecticides and paraquat, a widely used herbicide that is highly toxic and linked to Parkinson’s disease. Additionally, the legislation increases protections for farmworkers.

The bill is a long-shot to become law, especially during the Trump administration, Udall and Neguse acknowledged. 

Recently, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency’s “goal is to register as many different pesticides as possible so that people have the complete slate of different tools to pick.”

But Udall said he hopes in a new administration, lawmakers could bring everyone to the table. 

“The first thing you need is a good bill,” Udall said.

Chemical companies that manufacture the affected pesticides told Ag Professional that they believe these pesticides are safe.

“Neonicotinoids are critical tools used in modern integrated pest management programs because they are effective, require less treatment, and have a more favorable human safety and environmental profile than the older products they replaced,” Bayer said in a statement.

The legislation was praised by conservationists and farmworker advocates.

“Reform is needed to the law before we can have a system that is friendly to health and the environment. We need to start building this as a movement. We need to start recognizing problems with the system and not just individual pesticides,” said Emily Knobbe, EPA Policy Specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that supports endangered species and biodiversity.

Pesticides linked to health problems

In the fields, farmworkers are exposed to dozens of pesticides. They help plant seeds that are coated in insecticides, they help spray herbicides and they pick crops at the end of the season.

The bill would completely ban the use of organophosphate pesticides, most of which have already been banned for residential use. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Because of that, it can often be really difficult to tell how pesticides are affecting their health, said Jeannie Economos, coordinator of the pesticide safety and environmental health project for the Farmworker Association of Florida. 

“It makes it really difficult to make the line between one chemical and one disease,” she said. 

Even if the links are hard to make for each pesticide, many of these chemicals are known to be harmful to human health, she said.

The new bill would ban some of the chemicals. The ban would include stopping the use of organophosphate pesticides, the class of pesticide that DDT belongs to. 

Most organophosphates were banned in residential use because of their link to brain damage in children in the early 2000s. One of the most well known is chlorpyrifos, a popular insecticide, that the EPA banned in 2016; however, that ban was reversed by the Trump administration and the pesticide is still sold today. 

It’s not just human health that is being harmed. Organophosphates are likely to harm at least 97 percent of species protected under the Endangered Species Act, according to the legislation.

The bill would also ban neonicotinoid insecticides, which are linked to human health issues such as neurological and developmental harm and thyroid toxicity, said Jennifer Sass, senior scientist with the Natural Resource Defense Council, in an interview earlier this summer.

Additionally, neonicotinoids are linked to declines in insects, such as pollinators, said Michael Murray, staff scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. 

In addition to causing health issues for humans, neonicotinoid has been linked to the decline of insect and bird populations across the U.S. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture

A recent study also found that the use of neonicotinoid insecticides also leads to significant declines in birds. Between 2008 and 2014, areas with high neonicotinoid use were associated with a 12 percent decline in grassland bird populations, said Madhu Khanna, a professor at the University of Illinois and author of the study.

The bill would also ban paraquat, a herbicide linked to Parkinson’s disease.

These herbicides were once thought to be safer alternatives to old pesticides, but they are increasingly linked to health issues.

“There is a growing body of research that these pesticides, once thought safe to humans, are probably causing birth defects and other problems,” said Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. Goldman also worked as assistant administrator for toxic substances at the EPA in the 90s, when the Clinton administration overhauled pesticide laws. “The pesticide registration process is in dire need of reform, so that pesticides like these can be taken off the market.”

In addition to banning these toxic pesticides, the bill would require employers to report all pesticide-related injuries to the EPA, with strict penalties for failing to do so. The bill also would prevent employers from retaliating against employees for reporting exposures. The EPA is supposed to use these reports to help develop safer labels, according to the bill.

Under the bill, pesticide labels would also need to be written in Spanish, as well as any language that is spoken by at least 500 workers who use the pesticide.

Potential regulatory process changes

When the U.S. EPA approved the herbicide dicamba for over-the-top use on soybean and cotton plants in 2016, the approval was only good for two growing seasons. During the two years, more data would be collected and the EPA would reconsider the approval. When the herbicide was re-approved in 2018, the approval was again only good for two years, and the companies were required to submit new data.

Over that time period, millions of acres of crops and native plants were damaged by the herbicide — something experts say should have been prevented by the EPA taking the time to gather all data before approving the herbicide. 

The dicamba label is an example of what is called a conditional approval, which is when a pesticide approved pending certain conditions that must be met, such as data collection. 

Similarly, the EPA often uses “emergency” approvals of herbicides to deal with issues that require an extra-legal use of a pesticide. However, rather than being used in emergencies, the EPA has used the exemption to allow the year-after-year use of pesticides such as sulfoxaflor, which had been banned because of its effect on pollinators, to continue to be used on cotton plants in the South, according to the Center for Biological Diversity

Under the new bill, conditional registrations and emergency exemptions would be banned from being used year after year. The EPA would have to go through the regular public process to approve the pesticides, rather than using these exemptions to go outside of normal safety and health reviews, according to the legislation. 

The bill would also allow counties and municipalities to enact local policies that ban pesticides in their communities, which is currently not allowed.

Citizens would also be allowed to file petitions to ask the EPA to assess the safety of pesticides, and the EPA would have to address the petition in a timely manner, according to the bill.

More than 300 million pounds of pesticides that are banned in the European Union are sprayed in the United States each year. The EU takes a much more proactive stance to protect pollinators and human health, Udall said, and under the legislation, once the EU or Canada determined a pesticide was unsafe, the EPA would have to conduct a full health and safety review of the pesticide in a timely manner in order for it to continue to be used.

Knobbe, the EPA policy specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity, called the bill the most progressive pesticide bill in 25 years and said it is different because it gets “to the root of the problem, which is the statute itself.”

“At a certain point,” she said, “it becomes apparent that rather than play whack a mole with individual pesticides, what we should do is fix the statute.”

Type of work:

Johnathan Hettinger focuses on pesticide coverage for Investigative Midwest. Growing up in central Illinois, Johnathan saw and had family members working in all aspects of agribusiness, from boots-in-the-field...

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