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Episode 30: Chlorpyrifos - Safe pesticide, or 'Nazi nerve gas' EPA should ban?

Environmentalists know how to inspire political change. So it was no surprise to see the Natural Resources Defense Council, a prominent environmental NGO, release a video in June 2018 calling the pesticide chlorpyrifos a "nerve gas," comparable to the chemical Sarin developed by the Nazis, though never used, during World War II.

The NRDC video was produced to spur support for the group's national campaign to ban Chlorpyrifos, which might pay off as it turns out. On August 9th, a federal court ruled that the Environmental protection Agency (EPA) should ban the chemical within 60 days because it poses a risk to children's health.

Efforts to restrict the pesticide's use have gained traction at the state level, too, as California's Department of Pesticide Regulation "...[proposed the first week of August] to label chlorpyrifos as a toxic air contaminant." Despite these authoritative statements about chlorpyrifos, some experts say the risks posed by the pesticide have been exaggerated. Dr. Josh Bloom, Senior Director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at the American Council on Science and Health, joins me to explain why the evidence doesn't justify a nationwide ban on chlorpyrifos.

Note: This episode was recorded on August 8th, one day before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its ruling.


Background on Chlorpyrifos

Chlorpyrifos is a commonly used pesticide, originally registered for agricultural use in 1965 by the EPA. Farmers use the chemical to control a variety of pests on crops including corn, soybeans, nut trees and many more. Chlorpyrifos works by blocking an enzyme necessary for a properly functioning nervous system, according to the National Pesticide Information Center. When this enzyme is blocked, messages communicated between nerve cells are restricted and the target pest dies as a result.

Contrary to some of the claims you may read online, chlorpyrifos probably doesn't cause cancer. After approving the pesticide in 1965, re-registering it in 2006 and denying the NRDC's petition to ban the chemical in 2017, the EPA says that there is "evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans" for chlorpyrifos. Related claims that the pesticide could pose a threat to neurodevelopment in children are probably overstated, as well. There is some data to support the association, but the weight of the evidence overrules claims that chlorpyrifos threatens children at current exposure levels, the EPA also explains.

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