By Megan Horton and Bruce Lanphear
Last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vetoed legislation to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide known to harm children. The governor instead announced that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation would begin a process to ban the chemical, which is used on dozens of crops, including Christmas trees.
It is unfortunate the governor vetoed the bill, but if state regulators follow through, this could still be a major victory for children’s health.
The evidence against chlorpyrifos is strong. A study conducted at Columbia University followed children whose mothers were exposed to low levels of chlorpyrifos during pregnancy. Chlorpyrifos readily crosses the placenta, so when a mother is exposed, her unborn child is, too.
In this study, the exposed children exhibited mental and psychomotor delays, attention and behavior problems, and impaired cognition years after birth.
Studies conducted at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and University of California Berkeley made similar findings. Indeed, in a review of 27 human studies that examined organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos, all but one found harmful effects on the developing nervous system.
In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed banning all uses of chlorpyrifos on food crops. EPA concluded that children are exposed to chlorpyrifos on food at a level 140 times greater than what the agency believes is safe. Furthermore, EPA found that all uses of chlorpyrifos result in unsafe levels of exposure to farmers and farmworkers who handle chlorpyrifos, even when they wear personal protective equipment.
In early 2017, just two months after taking office, the Trump administration scuttled the proposed ban; they ignored the science and left children in harm’s way.
Gov. Cuomo could have protected New Yorkers now by signing the bill to ban chlorpyrifos. Large and bipartisan majorities approved this legislation last April. In May, we joined dozens of our colleagues in sending a letter to the governor outlining the scientific evidence that chlorpyrifos harms children. With a stroke of his pen, Cuomo could have made it law. However, he seems to believe another regulatory process, this time by a state agency, is needed before a final decision is taken.
We hope the Department of Environmental Conservation finally does what the Trump administration refused to do, and the Legislature tried to do, which is ban chlorpyrifos.
Megan Horton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. Bruce Lanphear, MD, is a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University.