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The Environmental Protection Agency has reversed course and will allow a controversial pesticide to stay on the market. That's despite the agency's earlier conclusion reached during the Obama administration that this pesticide could pose risks to consumers. It's a signal that toxic chemicals are likely to face less-restrictive regulation by the Trump administration. NPR's Dan Charles reports.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The pesticide is called chlorpyrifos. It's what farmer Wesley Spurlock in the panhandle of Texas loads in his sprayer when he sees worms on his corn or aphids on his wheat.
WESLEY SPURLOCK: This chemical doesn't scare us.
CHARLES: He does wear special clothing to protect himself, though, because this chemical attacks the nervous systems of insects and people. It can cause dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea. If he's spraying near his house, he might tell the kids to stay inside till the job's done.
SPURLOCK: By doing all of this, it's a safe product. And it's doing its job and doing it well.
CHARLES: Other farmers in other places spray this chemical on citrus trees, strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower. And that leaves residues on those foods in the supermarket. Patti Goldman, an attorney with the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, says chlorpyrifos is so toxic it should be banned.
PATTI GOLDMAN: Based on the harm that this pesticide causes, EPA cannot, consistent with the law, allow it in our food.
CHARLES: More than a decade ago, the EPA did ban the use of chlorpyrifos indoors to get rid of household bugs, but it allowed farmer to keep using it. It didn't see any evidence that chlorpyrifos residues on food could cause any immediate harm to the nervous system. Then new evidence appeared.
Jim Jones, who was in charge of pesticide regulation in the Obama administration, says it came from a scientific study that followed hundreds of mothers and their newborn children, monitoring their exposure to lots of chemicals.
JIM JONES: During the course of the study, because it was over many years, the agency's cancelation of the indoor uses of chlorpyrifos actually played out.
CHARLES: And when mothers were exposed to chlorpyrifos sprayed in their homes, it affected their newborn children. The average IQ of those children was slightly lower. It suggested that this chemical might be more dangerous than people thought. Jones says during the Obama administration, the EPA struggled to figure out based on that evidence how much risk chlorpyrifos residues on food might pose.
JONES: But once we cracked that nut and you now had the risk evaluated and in front of you, it became, in my view, a very straightforward decision with not a lot of ambiguity in terms of what you would do.
CHARLES: A year and a half ago, the EPA proposed a ban on chlorpyrifos. There was opposition. Jim Aidala is a former pesticide regulator at the EPA. He now works as a consultant to Dow AgroSciences, which sells chlorpyrifos. And he says many scientists, including those on a committee that the EPA asked to look at this question, are not convinced by the scientific methods the EPA used.
JIM AIDALA: There's a lot of controversy about this.
CHARLES: But the EPA faced a deadline. Environmental groups had gone to court demanding action, and a court ordered the agency to make a final decision this week. In the meantime, the EPA got new leadership which has promised to undo many regulations affecting farmers.
And today, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed a new order. The EPA will not go ahead with a ban on chlorpyrifos, at least not now. The agency says the court had no right to set that deadline because there's still scientific uncertainty. It says it will keep studying the chemical. Patti Goldman from the environmental group Earthjustice called today's decision unconscionable. She says her group will fight it in court. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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