By WOODY REHANEK
For the last 18 years, I taught a special education class in the Pajaro Valley. Many of my students were farmworker children with learning disabilities: problems paying attention, reading difficulties, hyperactivity, autism, lower IQ and struggles with self-control. I was shocked to discover that one of the most widely used pesticides in the world — chlorpyrifos — has, after over 20 years of solid research at UC Davis, Berkeley, Columbia University and elsewhere, been linked to these difficulties in learning and behavior.
Is chlorpyrifos to blame for all of my students’ learning problems? Not likely. Many other variables also correlate with these symptoms. But chlorpyrifos is undeniably one of them, and one that could be avoided. Google the CHAMACOS study, ongoing chlorpyrifos research being conducted in Salinas, or check the many recent articles on this destructive neurotoxin.
Based on a wealth of information, EPA concluded in 2016 that chlorpyrifos should be banned. The new Trump-appointed EPA director, Scott Pruitt, cancelled those plans. Who disagreed? California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, along with six other state attorney generals, appealed the EPA’s decision and urged them to follow through in banning chlorpyrifos. Senator Kamala Harris has introduced a bill to ban chlorpyrifos, and a companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. A total of 167,000 people signed petitions to ban chlorpyrifos in California and more than 200 stormed the capital to deliver those signatures.
EPA and CA DPR are mandated to establish “allowable limits” and “safe levels” of chemicals. However, EPA scientists decided in 2016 that, due to multiple sources, from food, water, and air, a safe threshold level for chlorpyrifos could not be established. Even extremely low exposures could result in negative impacts on children’s brains.
Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate, a family of chemicals used as nerve gasses in World War II. When DDT and related insecticides were banned, organophosphates came into broad use. Due to public health concerns, some organophosphates have been restricted. In fact, chlorpyrifos was pulled from household use in 2000 because of its dangers to children. Yet it is still one of the most widely used chemicals in our country, with six million pounds sprayed on 10 million acres from 2009-2013, according to Factcheck.org.
While applicators are at the greatest risk of poisoning, it was one of the pesticides which sickened Kern County field workers in May after drifting from a nearby crop. Spray drift contaminates air, water and soil. Per Wikipedia, people who live in agricultural communities excrete five to 10 times more chlorpyrifos than the general population.
The potential loss of human learning due to this one pesticide is staggering to me as a teacher. The CHAMACOS study found that children exposed to organophosphates in utero had up to a seven-point decrease in IQ. This IQ loss correlated with amounts of organophosphate applied on nearby fields during their mothers’ pregnancies. Lab studies of cell and animals, and population studies of humans all show chlorpyrifos exposure interferes with nerve cells — and interaction among brain cells is what makes learning possible.
Join thousands of parents, teachers and legislators in calling for an immediate and total ban on chlorpyrifos in California and beyond. We have plenty of science which provides evidence of harm. To protect our communities and our children’s ability to learn, please contact our governor, legislators and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation today to demand a ban of the neurotoxin chlorpyrifos.
Woody Rehanek is a resident of Watsonville. His opinions are his own and not necessarily those of the Register-Pajaronian.