It is with horribly mixed feelings that I hail the possible end of chlorpyrifos, the pesticide that killed my beloved daughter Katherine. Of course it is good that we will not be poisoning our children in this one particular way in future. But saying “hurrah, we are poisoning fewer children” feels a lot like a celebration of the damning question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” “Have we stopped poisoning our children?”
The answer is no. Chlorpyrifos is a horrible chemical, both acutely toxic, as I know first-hand from my own exposures, and a chronic cause of cancer, ADHD, lower IQs, birth defects, autism, and the list goes on. It is no exaggeration at all to say that it has affected most children to one degree or another, and particularly those of my children’s generation. One billion pounds of pesticides are used every year in the U.S., over 6 million pounds of it chlorpyrifos. An estimated one in four children has lost IQs points to chlorpyrifos. In a study that measured the effects of chlorpyrifos on IQ, the children in the top 20% exposed were 7 IQ points lower than those in the lowest quintile, and these children were not at zero (Bouchard et al. 2011). Normal is 100; genius is 130. Exposures like these have shifted the entire intelligence curve significantly to the left. So don’t blame educators if this generation seems dimmer than the previous one. And don’t blame the kids. In a study of chlorpyrifos exposure through food, every child on a conventional diet showed metabolites of the pesticide in their urine; after just two weeks on an organic diet, those levels declined to non-detectable levels (Lu et al. 2006). Even very low levels affected children’s brains, and abundant evidence testifies to the fact that chlorpyrifos has been responsible for many children dead or ill from cancer (PAN 2013; AAP 2012; Rauh et al. 2011; Rull et al. 2009, Eskanazi 2007; Zahm and Ward 1998), many children forever changed by autism or ADHD (Shelton et al. 2014; de Cock et al. 2012; Grandjean and Landrigan 2006).
But chlorpyrifos is only one chemical in the family of organophosphates. And organophosphates are only one family in the slew of toxic chemicals we are heedlessly pouring into our bodies and the environment, which are, we have found, basically the same thing. Everything is connected, as Pope Francis has cogently reminded us. Now, for a while, the word will be that pyrethroids are better, safer for our children. But you can find in the archives of this blog plenty of evidence to show that they are only marginally safer, if at all. The crux, from the point of view of the chemical companies, is not that they are safer; it is that they are less thoroughly studied. There is already sufficient evidence to condemn pyrethroids at the same bar as chlorpyrifos has been; it’s just that not as many children have been verifiably killed or maimed as by chlorpyrifos. From the chemical companies’ point of view, there is still deniability, because the information is not yet out in the public view as much as it was for chlorpyrifos. Believe me, they will do their best to continue to poison our children with some other pesticides for decades to come. Unless we put a stop to it. We could.
The European Union (EU) has completely different laws regulating pesticides. Their new theory is that it is the people, not the chemical companies, who need to be protected. Chemicals should not be presumed innocent until proven guilty, considering the obvious fact that many of them do indeed cause terrible harm; instead that privilege should be accorded to the real innocents, who should be protected against chemicals unless there is some reason to believe that the substances to which they are unavoidably exposed are NOT harmful.
It’s great if my letters and the letters of all those parents of dead children, and the letters of all those hard-working scientists have FINALLY made a difference, persuading the barely functional EPA to limit one terrible carcinogen. They could have chosen to do so on June 6, 2000, when they put limits on chlorpyrifos, banning its use in daycares, malls, nursing homes, and schools. We remember that day and thought for a while our family would be protected then. But the EPA didn’t institute a full ban, allowing reserves to be used, allowing continued use in agriculture, pest control, and we found to our harm, mosquito spraying. And now it is too late for all those dead children. It is far too late for Katherine. What a terrible waste. Only those who knew her could have any idea of the treasure lost to the world – for no good reason at all. I suppose you won’t believe me because I am her mother, but truly, she was perfectly beautiful, deeply loving, and absolutely brilliant – the most brilliant person I ever knew. And she died a slow, miserable death at the age of eight because a chemical company wanted to make money and because a few people in our town didn’t want to scratch mosquito bites. And she was just one of many.
So if, as many think, the ban will hold, there has been a victory for right today, but we are still losing the war for our children’s health. Please – keep those letters to the EPA and congressional representatives coming. Comments should open soon at http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;rpp=25;po=0;s=chlorpyrifos;fp=true;ns=true, and the industry hacks will be posting for sure. It’s possible that without that support, industry will still win this battle. Keep educating neighbors and friends. Keep protecting your own children and asking the most important questions. Don’t be complacent. Don’t be fatalistic. And please, don’t believe the lies of the chemical companies. Thank you.
American Academy of Pediatrics. 2012. Policy statement: Pesticide exposure in children. Pediatrics 130(6):e1757-e1763. Available at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/6/e1757.full
Bouchard MF, Chevrier J, Harley KG, Kogut K, Bedar M, Calderon N, Trujillo C, Johnson C, Bradman A, Barr DB, Eskenazi B. 2011 Aug. Prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides and IQ in 7-year-old children. Environ Health Perspect 119(8): 1189-1195.
de Cock M, Maas YGH, van de Bor M. 2012. Does perinatal exposure to endocrine disruptors induce autism spectrum and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders? Review. Acta Pædiatrica 101:811-818.
Eskenazi B, Marks AR, Bradman A, Harley K, Barr DB, Johnson C, et al. 2007. Organophosphate pesticide exposure and neurodevelopment in young Mexican-American children. Environ Health Persp 115(5):792-8.
Grandjean P, Landrigan PJ. 2006. Developmental neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals: A silent pandemic. Lancet 368:2167-2178.
Lu C, Toepel K, Irish R, Fenske RA, Barr DB, Bravo R. 2006. Organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides. Environ Health Perspect 114(2):260-263.
Pesticide Action Network (PAN). 2013. A generation in jeopardy: How pesticides are undermining our children’s health & intelligence. Available from http://www.panna.org/publication/generation-in-jeopardy
Rauh V, Arundjadai S, Horton M, Perera F, Hoepner L, Barr DB, et al. 2011. Seven-year neurodevelopmental scores and prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos, a common agricultural pesticide. Environ Health Perspect 119:1196-1201.
Rull RP, Gunier R, Von Behren J, Hertz A, Crouse V, Buffler PA, Reynolds P. 2009. Residential proximity to agricultural pesticide applications and childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Environmental Research 109:891-899.
Shelton JF, Geraghty EM, Tancredi DJ, Delwich LD, Schmidt RJ, Ritz B, Hansen RL, Hertz-Picciotto I. 2014. Neurodevelopmental disorders and prenatal residential proximity to agricultural pesticides: The CHARGE study. Environ Health Persp 122(10):1103-9.
Zahm SH, Ward S. 1998. Pesticides and childhood cancer. Environ Health Perspect Supp 106:893.