The bodies and minds of children living on the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i are being threatened by exposure to chlorpyrifos, a synthetic insecticide that is heavily sprayed on fields located near their homes and schools.
For decades, researchers have been publishing reports about children who died or were maimed after exposure to chlorpyrifos, either in the womb or after birth. While chlorpyrifos can no longer legally be used around the house or in the garden, it is still legal to use on the farm. But researchers are finding that children aren't safe when the insecticide is applied to nearby fields.
The entrance to Dow's fields near Waimea in Kaua'i. While chlorpyrifos can no longer legally be used around the house or in the garden, it is still legal to use on the farm.
Like a ghost drifting through a child's bedroom window, the airborne insecticide can settle on children’s skin, clothes, toys, rugs, and furnishings.
In fact, it's likely that the only people who needn't worry about exposure to chlorpyrifos are adults living far from the fields in which it is sprayed. That includes civil servants who work for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates the stuff, and executives with Dow Chemical, the company that manufactures it.
In a regulatory process known as re-registration, the EPA will decide in 2015 whether it still agrees that chlorpyrifos is safe for farming, or whether it will order a complete ban, as Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Pesticide Action Network have demanded in lawsuits filed in 2007 and in 2014.
Dow has long insisted that its chlorpyrifos products are safe, despite tens of thousands of reports of acute poisoning and multiple studies linking low-level exposures to children with lower IQ. The company also has a long history — going back decades — of concealing from the public the many health problems it knew were linked to chlorpyrifos.
In 1995, the EPA found that Dow had violated federal law by covering up its knowledge of these health problems for years. In 2004, then-New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer found that Dow had been lying about the known dangers of the pesticide in its advertising for nearly as long. Together, the EPA and the State of New York have levied fines against the company approaching $3 million.
On Kaua‘i, subsidiaries of four transnational chemical companies—Dow Chemical, DuPont, Syngenta, and BASF—spray chlorpyrifos and several other potent pesticides to protect their experimental genetically engineered crops (GMOs) against a wide variety of bugs and weeds. Because of the heavy pesticide use, Kaua‘i's GMO testing fields are among the most toxic chemical environments in all of American agriculture. The island, with its precious ecosystems and diverse wildlife, seems particularly ill-suited to be a laboratory for such experiments.
In two incidents in 2006 and 2008, all students at the Waimea Middle School on Kaua‘i were evacuated and about 60 were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms like dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Many people in town blamed the outbreak on chlorpyrifos dust and vapors that they believed had drifted from the nearby GMO test fields. The corporations denied that any illnesses were caused by their products and officials only tested for a few of the possible chemicals that could have contaminated the school and children.
The companies conduct their experiments on Kaua‘i because it has a 12-month growing season, and they can get in three or four crops each year. As Steve Savage, a former research manager for DuPont, has stated that they protect their GMO crops with chemicals to protect their large investments.
“The pesticides used on the seed farms are mostly just there to protect these very valuable seeds from pest damage,” he said. “That is more challenging because there is no winter to set-back the populations of things like insects. Some of the tropical weeds are also very challenging to control.”
There's no doubt that chlorpyrifos is efficient at killing insects. But the question before the EPA re-registration process is, “What is it doing to children?”
The EPA's Tepid Investigation of Dow
The US Environmental Protection Agency never determined how many lives were ruined or
lost as a result of harm caused by chlorpyrifos or Dow's cover-up.
The last time chlorpyrifos went through the re-registration process was in 2000. (The EPA is required to do that every 15 years.) At the time, Dow was fighting off several lawsuits from families with children poisoned by the chemical. It also faced an almost certain regulatory crackdown by the EPA. A large number of children and adults were being poisoned by more than 800 different chlorpyrifos-containing products that were commonly used around the house, including Dursban, Raid, Black Flag Liquid Roach and Ant Killer and Hartz Mountain Flea and Tick Collar. Chlorpyrifos applied by pest control operators also often led to serious health effects.
Under the terms of an agreement between Dow and the EPA, chlorpyrifos products for indoor use were taken off store shelves at the end of 2001 and were banned in schools, parks, and at day care centers. They continued to be used on the farm under the trade name Lorsban.
Dow Chemical started selling chlorpyrifos in 1965. In 1972, when the EPA banned DDT and other bug-killers, chlorpyrifos was there to take their place. There was a time when chlorpyrifos was invited into most homes in America on a daily basis. Approximately 21 to 24 million pounds were used annually in the US, of which about 11 million pounds were applied in the home, where the chemical's main job was to kill termites.
Because of its extensive use in the home before the ban in 2000, the vast majority of the US population was exposed to chlorpyrifos or its environmental breakdown product, trichloropyridinol (TCP). A 1999 Minnesota Children’s Exposure Study found that 92 percent of the 89 children evaluated had measurable amounts of TCP in their urine. A 1999 study of 416 children in North and South Carolina found TCP in the urine of all the children evaluated.
Chlorpyrifos belongs to a class of pesticides known as organophosphates, which are designed to interfere with the way insect brains operate. They can also interfere with human brains. Some people are more sensitive to chlorpyrifos based on their genes, according to the EPA.
A 2000 EPA review of “incidents” caused by chlorpyrifos notes: “Children under six were three times more likely to be hospitalized, five times more likely to be admitted for critical care in an intensive care unit (ICU), and three times more likely to have experienced a life-threatening outcome or death when exposed to an organophosphate than when exposed to non-organophosphate pesticides.”
By 1984, the number of chlorpyrifos poisonings in the home had begun to rise, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
The Poison Control Centers found that the annual number of reported chlorpyrifos poisoning cases before 2000 was close to 7,000. Many of these exposures involved small children who never developed symptoms, but several hundred cases per year were serious enough to require special medical attention. At least three children died. For example, in 1996, among the victims who received medical follow-up care, 567 experienced moderate, major, or life-threatening effects.
“These data do suggest that inhalation or dermal exposure can lead to life-threatening effects,” the EPA said in 2000.
The EPA accused Dow of concealing what it knew about the negative health effects of chlorpyrifos from 1984 to 1994 when CBS News investigated an incident in which the parents of a disabled child obtained a judgment against Dow for injuries that a court found were caused by a prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos.
Under the Federal Insecticide, Rodenticide, and Fungicide Act (FIFRA), the nation's main law regulating pesticide use, pesticide manufacturers like Dow are required to report to the EPA any complaints they receive about pesticide poisonings within 30 days. The law is designed to warn the EPA of all known health dangers associated with a product so it can prevent further poisonings and save lives. The EPA fined Dow $876,000 for 327 violations of FIFRA, but it failed to investigate any deeper.
The EPA never determined how many lives were ruined or lost as a result of harm caused by chlorpyrifos or Dow's cover-up. Nor did the EPA ever open a criminal investigation to find out who at the company knew about the health problems or why they didn’t report them to the EPA. The EPA never determined whether responsibility for the cover-up extended all the way to the top of the corporate ladder or was limited to lower-level employees.
The EPA's disinterest in investigating Dow was shared by Congress. A review of the Congressional Records from 1994 to 2014 revealed that only one Member of Congress — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont — spoke out about any concerns over chlorpyrifos. Congress' indifference toward the chlorpyrifos poisonings stands in stark contrast to its recent grilling of General Motors CEO Mary Barra over the deaths of drivers caused by accidents due to faulty ignition switches.
It may no longer be possible to conduct such an investigation. The EPA has destroyed many of the relevant documents, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Colaizzi.
Dow, meanwhile, asserts that chlorpyrifos has never been proven to be a danger to public health, despite the fines. “The information in question involved unsubstantiated allegations made in the course of litigation,” said Dow spokesman Garry Hamblin. He claimed the company “never agreed that this material represented 'factual information' which the company needed to report to EPA. As a means of resolving the dispute, [it] paid a negotiated settlement for late delivery of information and changed its reporting practices to better address EPA’s expectations.”
But Dr Janette Sherman, an internist and toxicologist with a workers' compensation practice in Detroit and Maui, disputes Dow's assertions of innocence. She examined some of the most seriously injured victims, including:
- 9-year-old Joshua Herb of Charleston, West Virginia, who became a quadriplegic after his home was treated with chlorpyrifos. He had been exposed in utero to Dursban and another organophosphate, propetamphos. A court found that animal tests performed at Duke University showed that chlorpyrifos, when combined with the other chemical, caused “catastrophic destruction” of the nervous system in lower doses than it would have alone. Dow settled his case for a reported $10 million; and
- The Ebling sisters in New Albany, Indiana. Connie, 9, and A.J., 6, had developed seizures, incontinence, and learning disabilities after their apartment was repeatedly sprayed with Dursban. One day, Connie was admitted to a hospital following a round of intense seizures. “I found her face-down in her eggs,” her mother told a reporter in the hospital room one evening. The young girl sat on her bed, gaping at a visitor, drooling, and hooting as she struggled to assemble a simple puzzle.
“The children were the most tragic,” said Sherman. “These kids had no future whatsoever. None.”
Sherman developed medical histories of the victims and testified about them in court. She also wrote about them in 12 articles that were published in peer-reviewed medical journals.
In 1999, an article in the European Journal of Oncology described eight children with a pattern of similar birth defects. Each had a history of in utero exposure to chlorpyrifos during their first trimester. All eight had birth defects of the brain, including four who had a missing or defective corpus callosum, the band of nerves connecting the two hemispheres in the brain. Five had heart defects. Other defects affected the eyes, the face, and the genitals. All of the children were developmentally disabled, and all but one required feeding, diapering, and constant monitoring.
Sherman explored family histories for alcohol consumption and maternal smoking for possible alternative explanations. She interviewed parents and other family members, reviewed medical files, and conducted physical examinations of six of the children.
Monitoring for pesticide levels was not conducted during any of the pregnancies. Thanks to Dow's failure to report the incidents in a timely manner, a significant amount of time elapsed before pesticide contamination was even considered as a possible cause, or before other parents could be warned about the hazards known to be associated with exposure to chlorpyrifos, according to Sherman.
In advertisements, Dow tried to assure the public that when used as directed, chlorpyrifos is “safe.” The state of New York deemed that such claims were false, and in 1994 Dow agreed to stop making them.
But a 2004 investigation by then-New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer found that Dow had continued to make misleading claims for a decade, including these statements:
“Chlorpyrifos is one of the most important, safe and widely used insecticides in the country.”
“No significant adverse health effects will likely result from exposures to Dursban, even at levels substantially above those expected to occur when applied at label rates.”
Spitzer's office fined Dow $2 million for making these and dozens of other “fraudulent” safety claims. “Pesticides are toxic substances that should be used with great caution,” Spitzer said at the time. “By misleading consumers about the potential dangers associated with the use of their products, Dow's ads may have endangered human health and the environment by encouraging people to use their products without proper care.”
The EPA says that the number of chlorpyrifos poisoning reports in home settings declined by 95 percent in the decade after 2001, when urban uses were banned.
In 2004, researchers at Columbia University found that babies born in upper Manhattan after January 1, 2001 were larger and longer — and had less chlorpyrifos in their umbilical cord blood plasma — than babies born before that date.
Several recent studies show that chlorpyrifos, as it is used today, still harms the developing brains of children.
“Toxic exposure during this critical period can have far-reaching effects on brain development and behavioral functioning,” said Virginia Rauh, a professor at the Columbia University’s School of Public Health. “Some small effects occur at even very low exposures.”
In 2008, another Columbia University study of 265 children found that, after pregnant women were exposed to chlorpyrifos, their babies had a lower intelligence rating.
In 2011, researchers at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York linked chlorpyrifos to a reduction in a child's ability to solve problems.
From 1998 to 2011, the CHAMACOS (Center for Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas) studies were conducted on farm workers near Salinas, California. The studies examined associations between prenatal and postnatal exposure to low levels of organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos and cognitive abilities in school-age children. The studies found that higher concentrations of chlorpyrifos in the mothers' urine were linked to declines in working memory, processing speed, verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, and IQ of their children. Children of mothers with the greatest urinary concentrations had an average deficit of seven IQ points compared with those in the lowest concentrations — the equivalent of being a half-year behind their peers, according to The Nation.
The EPA says it will consider these human epidemiological studies before it makes a final re-registration decision. But according to a June 25, 2014, memo written by the agency's Health Effects Division, the EPA appears ready to dismiss them in favor of two unpublished, non peer-reviewed studies conducted by Dow scientists in 2013.
These studies claimed that chlorpyrifos cannot possibly do any harm to bystanders, even at “the highest possible concentration in the air,” the EPA memo said. It reasoned that, “if there is no hazard to the vapor for these pesticides, there is no risk.”
The memo goes on to say, “The results of these studies have significantly changed how [the] EPA considers the hazard to chlorpyrifos.”
The two Dow reports were based on the company's own experiments with five groups of lab rats. Sherman said a peer review would have questioned some of the assumptions made by the authors of the study. The lab rats were given chlorpyrifos through the nose but, in reality, children also absorb the chemical through the skin, by putting toys in their mouths, by rolling around on the rug, and even through breast milk. She also said that the sample size — five groups of eight rats each — is not statistically significant.
While the EPA so far seems content to rest its decisions on industry-sponsored studies with lab rats, independent research clearly shows that chlorpyrifos can put children's futures at risk. Advocates, meanwhile, wait for the EPA to rule on their seven-year-old petition, demanding that the pesticide be banned completely, on farms as well as in houses.