A battle more than a decade in the making is in its final stretch, with an impact on every single American shopper.
The federal government is considering an end to a commonly used pesticide on U.S. crops, and farmers in Eastern Washington are worried.
The chemical is called Chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin that aims to protect produce by targeting insects.
Kerrick Bauman is one of many producers in Eastern Washington who uses the chemical on his onion crop. He grows and ships tens of thousands of pounds of onions in Pasco, Connell and Othello.
“The onions are all controlled up here,” Bauman says, gesturing to a conveyer belt spanning a city-block-long warehouse.
He has been in business with his father for 27 years, and knows onions well.
“The onion won’t wake up until we wake it up,” he says, picking up a yellow onion from a ten foot pile. “We keep them at 38 degrees so they stay dormant.”
He says growing the perfect grocery store onion becomes more difficult every year.
“Mild winters, early springs that are warmer than normal,” Bauman recites. “We're getting an earlier maggot.”
The onion or corn seed maggot to be precise. It is a fly larva that eats into a growing seed, either killing the plant or leaving it damaged and unappealing.
“Those onions get thrown out,” Bauman explains.
At $3,500 an acre to produce, Bauman says onions are on the expensive end of agriculture. In order to keep growing crops economical, he and other farmers often rely on chemical help.
“What we do as growers is to protect our crop.”
Chlorpyrifos is the chemical of choice for many vegetable crops in Washington, often applied dry to soil during springtime planting.
However, for orchards and other crops around the state and U.S., the chemical is sprayed.
““It is a very volatile chemical,” says Paul Towers, spokesperson with Pesticide Action Network (PAN) North America. “Which means it becomes airborne and persists in the air for sometimes days at a time.”
Environmental groups such as PAN and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have pushed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to act for more than a decade.
“[Chlorpyrifos] effectively scramble[s] the brains of insects,” Towers says. “And unfortunately, some of those same effects lead to damage to the brain architecture effectively of children.”
For that reason, Chlorpyrifos was banned from household use in 2000. Now, the EPA is considering a revocation of all tolerances for the chemical, which essentially means a ban on all use, including farming.
“We've come a long way,” says Dr. Tim Waters with WSU extension. He holds up a rusty farming hoe in his Pasco office. “These were the tools that people were using in the 40s and 50s.”
Dr. Waters is the regional vegetable specialist in Benton and Franklin Counties with a Ph.D in entomology. He is an expert in all things bug.
“Our central nervous system is very similar to the central nervous system of an insect,” he explains.
He says this similarity presents a challenge when chemicals target traits that insects and humans share. He adds older chemicals such as Chlorpyrifos were designed for more than farming.
“Basically things to kill people,” he says. “Offshoots of chemical warfare.”
However, according to Dr. Waters, some of the worst chemicals, such as Temik Aldicarb, are already banned and being taken off the market.
“A coffee cup of Temik would kill everyone in this building,” he says gesturing around the extension office.
For perspective, he says, Chlorpyrifos is 100 times less potent, and therefore much safer to human health.
However, PAN’s Paul Towers says even in small amounts, the chemical poses risk.
“Even in amounts being used currently in farm fields, we see these profound impacts on children’s brains and development.”
Various studies and scientific inquiries back up these concerns.
In 2015, the Washington State Department of Health submitted a document to the EPA requesting higher protections for groups sensitive to Chlorpyrifos.
It detailed more than a dozen cases of farm workers and their families sickened by the chemical. Some suffered from bodily irritation, while others were hospitalized for loss of breath.
“Basically when you use them at a high dose, they kill people,” says Dr. Waters. “Use them at a low-dose, and they kill insects, but not harm people.”
For a majority of Americans, high exposure is unlikely.
However, studies by the EPA, NRDC and PAN reveal some parts of the U.S. have “unsafe” levels of exposure, especially for pregnant women and young children.
After years of petitions, appeals and lawsuits by environmental groups to the EPA, a court ordered the agency to make a decision: either prove Chlorpyrifos is safe or revoke approval.
Dr. Waters studies these chemical effects extensively in the field, and explains farmers know the risk and work hard to reduce it.
”Their families live in these communities, and obviously they don't want to jeopardize their family's health,” Dr. Waters says. “And it costs them to use these, so it definitely pays to use them the right ways.”
“Let me be clear: if we don't have to use it, we won’t,” agrees Bauman.
Bauman says as an onion lover himself, he would not use any more pesticides than he has too to protect the crop.
His method of ground application and applying Chlorpyrifos only to areas of a field as needed is arguably less impactful than an airborne spray.
However, ground application still raises an issue.
“We don't want this product to get in the water and moved off site,” says Dr. Waters. “We don't want it to get in groundwater.”
He adds, however, Chlorpyrifos is not very soluble, and does not dissolve easily in water. It is not easily absorbed through roots of produce, while other chemicals can be.
The bigger concern, especially in the Yakima Valley, is Chlorpyrifos in the air.
“We did find it almost every time we sampled for it in communities in Eastern Washington,” says Towers.
The EPA is weighing all these inputs, taking thousands of comments nationwide from environmentalists, farmers, neighbors and consumers alike.
After January 17, if Chlorpyrifos tolerances are revoked, the chemical could be banned by March 2017.
The looming decision has Bauman asking: “Ultimately, can we afford to keep growing onions?”
And what are the alternatives?
Some of the new pesticides dubbed safer for people are less flexible to use. One in the class called neonicotinoid, is often treated directly to seeds. Farmers have to order them months in advance, but often will not know the need for a pesticide until closer to planting. Seed treatments, therefore, require application even when pesticides are unnecessary.
Neonicotinoids are also more soluble and susceptible to absorption by a plant. Dr. Waters says while they are much less toxic to humans than Chlorpyrifos, they are also under fire for their deadly effect on honeybees.
Other chemicals often taken 7-14 years to develop, test and receive EPA approval.
The EPA says it is aware of the challenge facing farms that rely on Chlorpyrifos, publishing a 50-page analysis on the impacts to small businesses if the chemical is removed.
Meanwhile, Dr. Waters maintains science has come a long way in terms of pesticide safety.
Farmers, scientists, and environmentalists only agreeing on one thing: pesticide use has declined and gotten safer over the last decade.
However, until new technologies become available, Dr. Waters says Chlorpyrifos is a decent option for maintaining the standard of produce consumers expect from Eastern Washington farms.
Back in Othello, Bauman continues his tour of his onion facility.
“Ask for onion rings, and it could come out of an onion like that,” he says, handing over a flawless sphere.
Bauman says he is in the onion business for the long haul, shipping out 3,000 truckloads a year, helping feed the tens of millions who eat Washington onions worldwide.
His hope is that Chlorpyrifos remains legal, but also that something better comes along soon.
“To allow us to use this on a limited basis, which it is, until we get something really to replace this that would be ultimately just like the new chemistries are: safer to all concerned.”
The EPA comment period runs through January 17, and can be found here on regulations.gov.
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