Chemical reactions: Bill on popular pesticide inspires passionate debate on both sides

KAILUA-KONA — A controversial measure to institute across Hawaii a blanket ban on the manufacturing, distribution and use of chlorpyrifos — once the most widely utilized pesticide in the United States — continues to gain traction as it moves through the state House of Representatives.

Rep. Richard Creagan (D-South Kona, portions of North Kona and Ka‘u) who introduced House Bill 1756, said a similar measure was nixed last session because legislators assumed the United States Environmental Protection Agency was poised to ban the pesticide for use on agricultural products nationwide. But as a new administration took control of the White House, President Donald Trump shook up leadership at the EPA and priorities changed.

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“The EPA didn’t do it because Trump appointed (Scott) Pruitt, who immediately stuffed it,” said Creagan, who has described the current construction of the EPA as “compromised.”

Creagan hasn’t been shy about trumpeting the dangers he says chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate pesticide related to the nerve agent sarin, poses to the most vulnerable members of the population.

“It causes brain damage in fetuses,” Creagan said.

“We are treating our babies like the Syrian dictator Assad is treating his own civilians,” he added in a press release Feb. 8. “It is time we stop bowing to the dictates of the chemical companies.”

Not everyone agrees, however, as farmer advocacy groups and Hawaii’s own Department of Agriculture have voiced publicly their opposition to HB 1756.

Studies and EPA history

The EPA notes on its website that it has “conducted several risk assessments” in the wake of a petition from the Pesticide Action Network of North America and the Natural Resources Defense Council requesting the EPA “revoke all pesticide tolerances” for chlorpyrifos and “cancel all chlorpyrifos registrations.”

The EPA denied that petition in March of last year, saying it would “continue to review the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects of chlorpyrifos” but asserting there is a “reasonable certainty” that current uses of the chemical remain safe as long as the pesticide is used with the necessary precautions and in accordance with label directions.

However, studies on the chemical have served as part of the foundation for multiple EPA actions restricting chlorpyrifos usage under previous administrations.

A prospective cohort study entitled “Impact of Prenatal Chlorpyrifos Exposure on Neurodevelopment in the First 3 Years of Life Among Inner-City Children,” which was published in 2006, examined 254 children who were exposed to the chemical prenatally.

Researchers measured the amount of chlorpyrifos in the mother’s plasma and umbilical cord plasma at birth. They then evaluated each child’s cognitive and motor development at 12, 24 and 36 months of age.

According to the National Pesticide Information Center, the study found when plasma registered at 6.17 picograms/gram or higher, children were “significantly more likely to experience adverse effects, including developmental delays and disorders, attention problems, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder at three years of age” as compared to children with exposure below those levels.

Based on similar research, the EPA in 2000 banned all indoor use of chlorpyrifos except in child-resistant ant and roach baits and treatments for fire ants. The same year, the agency eliminated use of the pesticide on tomatoes and restricted its use on apples and grapes.

In 2002, the EPA restricted chlorpyrifos usage on citrus and tree nuts, among other agricultural products. And in 2012, according to the agency’s website, the EPA lowered chlorpyrifos application rates, developing ‘no-spray’ buffers around public and residential areas.

Opposing factions

John McHugh, manager of the Pesticide Branch at the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, said records indicate chlorpyrifos is most commonly used on Hawaii Island, specifically in sweet potato production. He added based on DOA numbers, however, that usage statewide dropped roughly 70 percent over the last four years.

Click here for a list of chlorpyrifos purchases and usage locations across Hawaii between 2015-17.

Those same records list ants, worms and other agricultural pests as the primary target of the pesticide, which is also applied to several varieties of corn and other row crops. Resorts use the chemical for pest control and to help maintain ornamental plants.

McHugh said the DOA does not support Creagan’s legislation banning chlorpyrifos in Hawaii, primarily because the agency aligns itself with the EPA on such issues. The DOA receives grant money annually for pesticide enforcement and education from the EPA.

“Since the EPA hasn’t banned it, we are not going to support a bill that bans it,” McHugh explained. “Any time we want to deviate from anything that’s aligned with EPA, that could put that funding at risk.”

DOA is, however, proposing to add chlorpyrifos to the state restricted use pesticide list, meaning all products listing the chemical as an active ingredient will be subject to restrictions in Hawaii. Some granular forms of the pesticide that are said to pose less risk to applicators are not restricted at the federal level, McHugh said.

Randy Cabral, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, which represents 1,900 farm family members across the state, also submitted testimony opposing Creagan’s legislation, saying his organization understands public concerns but that a blanket ban is unnecessary.

His reasons included a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that upheld the EPA’s decision not to ban chlorpyrifos and that Hawaii farmers would be unfairly disadvantaged because the chemical is available to farmers in every other state.

But Creagan said he sees banning chlorpyrifos as an opportunity for local farmers to regain some of the market share they’ve lost due to the threat of rat lungworm disease.

The chemical is widely used in California and Mexico, places from which Hawaii imports a significant amount of agricultural produce. Thus, Creagan believes local farmers can benefit from associating their Hawaii-grown produce with a chlorpyrifos-free label, offsetting concern over rat lungworm.

Several political action groups, like Life of the Land and Hawaii Children’s Action Network, submitted testimony in favor of HB 1756.

The Hawaii state Department of Health also submitted its support of the bill, citing research on the negative health impacts of chlorpyrifos.

“Three high quality epidemiological studies have shown an association between prenatal chlorpyrifos and/or organophosphate exposure and adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes in children,” the testimony read.

The path forward

All told, nearly 500 pages of testimony were submitted on the measure as it was heard and ultimately passed by House committees on Agriculture and Energy and Environmental Protection earlier this session.

Rep. Roy Takumi (D-Pearl City, Manana and Waipio) chairs the Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, which was to hear HB 1756 next. Instead, Takumi waived the bill, which was then re-referred to the Finance Committee Tuesday.

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Creagan said he requested the waiver, which he added amounts to essentially passing the bill without scheduling a hearing.

The Finance Committee is the last House committee through which the measure must pass before it can make its way to the Senate.