are pesticides bad for you


A federal appeals court recently ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the entire class of chlorpyrifos-containing pesticides in the United States. The decree, while still subject to further delays and appeals, marks a major victory for environmental and public health groups.

This is not the first time these pesticides have been banned. As we reported in a previous article, the EPA overturned a ban on chlorpyrifos in March 2017. The decision was largely carried out by Scott Pruitt, then administrator of the EPA under the Trump administration (his own staff at the EPA recommended that chlorpyrifos-containing products be taken off the market).

Throughout his tenure, Mr. Pruitt was the targeted recipient of intense lobbying on behalf of the pesticide industry—a cozy relationship that led to lavish spending, family favors, and other ethical scandals. Since the summer of 2017, Mr. Pruitt has become the subject of no less than thirteen federal investigations into these “legal and ethical violations,” and has since resigned.[1]

The recent ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups shortly after the commercial ban was rejected by Mr. Pruitt. The court ruled that there was “no justification for the E.P.A.’s decision in its 2017 order to maintain a tolerance for chlorpyrifos in the face of scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children,” and ordered the agency to enact a ban with sixty days.[2]

Studies show adverse effects on childhood neurological development

The EPA still maintains that their staff has been unable to “access” sufficient data to warrant an outright ban of chlorpyrifos, but most experts agree that this stock response is nothing more than a stall tactic originally conceived by Mr. Pruitt. There most certainly is sufficient data to warrant concern over chlorpyrifos toxicity, especially in children.

For example, one study carried out by researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health reported “evidence of deficits in Working Memory Index and Full-Scale IQ” in seven-year-old children who had been exposed to chlorpyrifos-containing pesticides for all or most of their lives.[3]

Another study published in the journal Neurotoxicology examined the effects of prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos, and found it to be correlated with mild to moderate tremors in children, as well as an increased risk of more serious movement disorders.[4]

Despite the EPA’s reluctance, environmentalists are celebrating

The EPA hasn’t yet made it clear what their next action will be. The agency reserves the right to request a reconsideration of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, to ask for an extension on the chlorpyrifos ban deadline, or to appeal to the Supreme Court.

As mentioned above, representatives still claim that they require more data in order to make their decision. Agency spokesman Michael Abboud stated that “the E.P.A. is reviewing the decision,” and explained that “the Columbia Center’s data underlying the court’s assumptions remains inaccessible and has hindered the agency’s ongoing process to fully evaluate the pesticide using the best available, transparent science.”

While loyalty to genuine, evidence-based science is certainly an admirable sentiment, the slowness of the E.P.A.’s actions is still strange. After all, the agency’s first priority is to protect the health of the environment and American citizens, not corporate interests—one would hope that any evidence that chlorpyrifos adversely affects children would spur at least some degree of swift regulatory action.

Despite these ambiguities, though, environmental activists view the Ninth Circuit’s ruling as cause for celebration.

For starters, the current ban is more all-encompassing than the one rejected by Scott Pruitt in 2017—it prohibits not only commercial household uses of chlorpyrifos (e.g. as an insecticide), but also all industrial use on farms. The previous ban still allowed farmers to legally use chlorpyrifos, a caveat with which environmentalists took issue, given that the chemical’s adverse effects have been shown to be especially pronounced in the children of farming families.

If the ban is enacted, it will be a huge blow to pesticide companies. Over fifty different crops—including a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains—are grown using chlorpyrifos-based pesticides. According to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, a whopping 640,000 acres of California farmland was treated with such pesticides in 2016 alone.[5]

Regardless, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling serves as a beacon of hope to many environmentalists who had begun to believe that not even the Environmental Protection Agency could be trusted to, well…protect the environment. The ruling demonstrates that evidence-based science and targeted activism, coupled with a well-functioning judicial system, can still triumph over corrupt politics and corporate cronyism.

With any luck, by the time farmers throughout the United States plant and harvest their next round of crops, law will require them to do so without toxic, chlorpyrifos-containing pesticides.



[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/05/climate/scott-pruitt-epa-trump.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1003160/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26385760

[5] https://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/pur/pur16rep/chmrpt16.pdf

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We’d all like to believe we live in a world that can be taken at face value—one in which the system works as it should, without corruption, backroom deals, and legal loopholes. Living and working in integrity seems like a simple enough prospect, and it seems obvious that our industrial undermining of our health and the environment cannot continue.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that everything is not as it seems, and that many people in positions of great power do not heed the imperatives of ecological and personal sustainability.

Take as a prominent example the EPA’s recent overturning of the ban on chlorpyrifos, the main ingredient in a pesticide manufactured by Dow Chemical. The EPA cited “serious scientific concerns and substantive process gaps” as an explanation for the change of heart, but many believe the story to be more complicated.

Scott Pruitt: New EPA Head Puts Profits over people

Dow’s best-selling pesticide has a long and controversial history. It has been in use since 1965, despite escalating concerns regarding its impact on human health. Following a rigorous Human Health Risk Assessment by the EPA, chlorpyrifos was banned in 2000 for household pesticide applications.

The assessment revealed significant potential health consequences, including damage to the parts of the brain that control memory, learning, language, behavior, and emotion. These effects appear to be most pronounced in children who have been exposed to chlorpyrifos, and can lead to IQ impairment, attention disorders, and other cognitive and behavioral dysfunctions.[1]

Nevertheless, over 40,000 farms still spray this worrying chemical on fifty different types of crops. A decade ago, two environmental groups organized a petition to enact a nationwide ban on all uses of chlorpyrifos, and in 2015 the Obama administration backed the idea.

The ban was well on its way to being implemented, but Scott Pruitt, the new head of the EPA under the Trump administration, rejected it earlier this spring. He maintained that further study is needed in order to obtain “regulatory certainty,” even though EPA employees concluded last year that the pesticide should be banned.

This decision as a frightening sign. The pesticide industry’s heavy lobbying is well-known, but the EPA has long been viewed as a bastion of ecological integrity, an agency staunchly dedicated to protecting the health of American citizens and the environment, not the bottom lines of chemical manufacturing companies.

The Environmental Working Group reports that Croplife America, the primary lobbying group for the pesticide industry, petitioned the EPA in late 2016 to reject the proposed chlorpyrifos ban.[2] It seemed that the EPA would hold its course, and in fact was even scheduled to finalize the ban in March 2017—until Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration took the reins.

The EWG has pushed back hard against the decision to reject the ban, and has organized a petition and funding campaign to reopen the discussion. EWG President Ken Cook expressed his disapproval for the new EPA administrator by stating that, “like a toddler running toward his parents, Pruitt leaped into the warm and waiting arms of the pesticide industry.” Cook also reminds us that Pruitt is a man who “isn’t sure if banning lead from gasoline was a good idea.”[3]

Keep in mind that the EWG is not in the business of fear-mongering, exaggerating, or taking sides. They are an evidence-based organization dedicated to educating and protecting the public—they’re the folks we have to thank for invaluable resources like the annual Dirty Dozen testing results. Unlike the EPA, they provide transparent, honest assessments of environmental risks, and truly do have our health in mind.

And besides, the overturning of the ban is anything but fringe news. The event was covered by the full gamut of mainstream news outlets, and all of them pointed out that Scott Pruitt rejected the ban despite the EPA’s own evidence against the pesticide.

If you’re interested in more evidence demonstrating the grave health risks of chlorpyrifos-containing pesticides, there’s no shortage of it.

The latest incident occurred not long after Pruitt’s rejection of the ban: forty-seven farm workers near Bakersfield, California complained of vomiting, nausea, and gastrointestinal distress after being exposed to chlorpyrifos. And the farm they were working on doesn’t even use the chemical; it was later confirmed that the pesticide was carried by wind from a neighboring farm. For this reason, many families in California’s Central Valley fear that they are being slowly poisoned by pesticide drift.

What you can do to fight back

Sadly, Scott Pruitt’s decision heralds an era of more relaxed regulation of industrial chemicals—but this doesn’t mean we just have to sit back and let it happen.

The Environmental Working Group is doing everything they can to fight for tougher regulation. We’re lucky to have them on our side at a time when it seems that the EPA has forsaken the very mission for which it was created.

You can read the EWG’s guide on how to avoid chlorpyrifos-contaminated foods here, and you can support future EWG petitions and action campaigns by donating here.



[1] https://archive.epa.gov/scipoly/sap/meetings/web/pdf/hed_ra.pdf

[2] https://static.ewg.org/pdf/croplife-petition-2016.pdf?_ga=2.222166424.1258030035.1499280385-1761394054.1499280385

[3] http://www.ewg.org/release/epa-chief-scraps-scheduled-ban-pesticide-harms-kids-brains

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Have you heard of the infamous Dirty Dozen?

This catchy name refers to the types of conventional produce most likely to be contaminated with pesticides. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published a corresponding list for a number of years, and their 2017 report is full of more frightening statistics than ever.

If you ever purchase conventional (non-organic) produce, you’d do well to steer clear of the Dirty Dozen. Instead, choose what the EWG calls their Clean Fifteen—the fifteen forms of produce with the smallest likelihood of pesticide contamination.

Without further ado, here’s the 2017 lists.

The Dirty Dozen (most contaminated first)

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Nectarines
  4. Apples
  5. Peaches
  6. Celery
  7. Grapes
  8. Pears
  9. Cherries
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Sweet bell peppers
  12. Potatoes

The Clean Fifteen (cleanest first)

  1. Sweet corn
  2. Avocados
  3. Pineapple
  4. Cabbage
  5. Onions
  6. Frozen sweet peas
  7. Papayas
  8. Asparagus
  9. Mangoes
  10. Eggplants
  11. Honeydew melons
  12. Kiwis
  13. Cantaloupe
  14. Cauliflower
  15. Grapefruit

What does the EWG mean when they say “dirty” and “clean”?

To help us make sense of their data (and to incentivize us to take it to heart the next time we go grocery shopping), the Environmental Working Group also reports “Key Findings” in conjunction with their lists. Here’s their top points for 2017[1]:

  • “More than 98% of samples of strawberries, spinach, peaches, nectarines, cherries, and apples tested positive for residue of at least one pesticide.”
  • “A single sample of strawberries showed 20 different pesticides.”
  • “Spinach samples had, on average, twice as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop.”
  • “Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest: only 1 percent of samples showed any detectable pesticides.”
  • “More than 80% of pineapples, papayas, asparagus, onions, and cabbage had no pesticide residues.”
  • “No single fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen tested positive for more than four types of pesticide.”
  • “Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables. Only 5 percent of the Clean Fifteen vegetable samples had two or more pesticides.”

You can read the EWG’s full report on 48 different common fruits and vegetables here.

Some things to consider

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that your best choice is always to avoid GMO produce altogether. As long as you exclusively purchase organic produce, you can be much more certain that any fruit or vegetable you purchase will be pesticide-free.

As we reported in a previous article, though, there is still a chance of pesticide contamination in organic produce. Thankfully, this occurrence is still somewhat rare, and it’s mostly because pesticides applied to neighboring GMO crops are carried by wind over to organic farms (not because organic farms are also using toxic pesticides).

For this reason, it’s imperative that we withdraw our support from GMO farming operations—otherwise, they will reach a point of prevalence that will make it difficult for any farmers or consumers to escape from pesticides.

Some would argue that our world is already dangerously saturated with poisonous pesticides. For example, a worrying laboratory test conducted by the University of California San Francisco found that 93% of urine submitted urine samples tested positive for glyphosate.[2]

Therefore, try not to see the Clean Fifteen as permission to purchase certain kinds of conventional produce. You may have noticed that the fruits and vegetables on the Clean Fifteen list all have husks, shells, or other protective mechanisms that prevent pesticides from being directly absorbed (as opposed to produce like strawberries from the Dirty Dozen list, which are porous and thus incredibly vulnerable to pesticide absorption).

Here’s the problem, though: anything that is conventionally grown has a dramatically higher chance of being genetically modified. By purchasing the Clean Fifteen, you may be protected from pesticide exposure, but you’re still supporting GMO agriculture—and thus worldwide pesticide contamination (along with a whole host of other horrors that accompany GMO agribusiness).

The Environmental Working Group understands that purchasing nothing but organic produce is perceived as cost-prohibitive for many people. Thus, their Clean Fifteen list is an attempt to reveal what kinds of produce aren’t acutely unhealthy for you, if and when you must purchase non-organic fruits and vegetables.

You might find, however, that buying organic isn’t as cost-prohibitive as you think. Organic produce may be a bit pricier than conventional, but it’s still cheaper than most processed and packaged foods (which aren’t as healthful anyway). By replacing packaged foods with more fresh produce, you can support organic farming and save money in the process.

Also, look up any coops or farmers markets in your area—coops often offer lower prices to their members, and farmers markets are usually cheaper too (because farmers can sell directly to consumers without stores operating as middlemen).

With a bit of education and forethought, you can protect yourself from exposure to toxic pesticides and support the farming industries who are regenerating rather than destroying our planet.



[1] https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php

[2] https://detoxproject.org/1321-2/

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