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Hawai’i First US State to Ban Use of Neurotoxic Pesticide Chlorpyrifos

As the EPA refuses to take action on a known public health hazard, the island state shows the way forward

Yesterday, Hawai'i Governor David Ige signed into law Senate Bill 3095 banning all uses of chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxic pesticide that US Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has refused to prohibit despite the EPA’s own pronouncement that the pesticide poses an unacceptable risk to humans.

photo of agriculture hawaiiPhoto by moonjazz / Flickr Following years of grassroots organizing by activists, Hawai'i Governor David Ige signed a law yesterday banning the use of the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyifos across the state. The ban takes effect next year.

This new law is the culmination of nearly six years of grassroots organizing by rural communities in Hawai’i that face daily pesticide exposure.

Chlorpyrifos is part of a class of chemicals, known as organophosphates, that were developed before World War II as a nerve gas that could halt neurotransmissions in a soldier’s brain. Chlorpyrifos kills bugs by disrupting their brain functions in a similar way.

Several studies have shown that exposure to the pesticide, which can make its way into food, air, and drinking water supplies, can affect humans, especially children who can suffer from impaired cognitive abilities and reduced IQ after chronic exposures. Chlorpyrifos was banned for indoor use in 2001 due to its impacts on children’s developing brains, but it continues to be the most heavily used insecticide in the US with 4 to 8 million pounds applied annually.

On a pounds-per-acre basis, the heaviest applications of chlorpyrifos in the US has been on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where several large agribusiness have been conducting open-air experiments on genetically modified seeds. (Read “The Ghost in the GMO Machine.”)

“This law is our message to the EPA and to the chemical companies that we will no longer tolerate being ground zero for the testing of toxic pesticides that are damaging our children’s health and poisoning our environment,” Gary Hooser, former Majority Leader of the Hawai'i Senate and founder of the Hawai'i Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA), said in a statement yesterday after Ige signed the bill.

HAPA was a part of a coalition of local residents, teachers, scientists, health professionals, and advocates, including Hawai'i Center for Food Safety, Hawai‘i SEED, and Pesticide Action Network, that worked for years to push forward the legislation.

Hooser, who lives on Kauai, guided the “Protect our Keiki” coalition of diverse residents from across the islands through the complex political process that resulted in the law. (“Keiki” means child in Hawaiian.) “This is Hawai'i fighting back against the disrespect for science and public health — and winning! In the era of Trump, states must lead,” he said.

The new law also takes steps to protect children from being exposed to other airborne pesticides. It mandates 100-foot no-spray buffer zones around schools to protect children from spraying of EPA-designated restricted use pesticides (RUPs) during school hours. RUPs are a class of pesticides the EPA considers most hazardous to human heath.

Chemical companies will now have to report regularly on the RUPs they spray, as well as when and where they spray, and in what quantities. This will help impacted communities access information about what they are being exposed to and enable regulators to make informed decisions about protecting public health, the environment, and local ecosystems.

The ban will take effect in January 2019. Companies that need more time to respond to the ban may apply for extensions via temporary permits that will extend only until December 31, 2022. After that, use of chlorpyrifos will not be permissible anywhere in Hawai’i.

Hawai’i’s move will hopefully inspire other states to follow suit and put similar bans in place.

California, which until now had the most rigorous consumer protections against chlorpyrifos and other chemicals, could be the first contender. In December 2017, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment added the pesticide to its Prop 65 list of substances known to cause cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm, and required products containing chlorpyrifos to be appropriately labeled by the end of this year.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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