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Coalition calls for ban on chlorpyrifos

By REBECCA PLEVIN / Vida En El Valle

(Published Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 03:48PM)

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LINDSAY -- When Environmental Protection Agency officials consider re-registering the neurotoxic chemical chlorpyrifos, Luís Medellín hopes they take into account the health of his parents and three younger sisters, who are regularly impacted by the pesticide as it drifts off orange groves across the street from their home.

The pesticide -- which was banned from use in homes about 10 years ago, but is still sprayed on crops such as oranges, almonds, walnuts, alfalfa and cotton -- has the piercing smell of a skunk or roach spray, Medellín said.

"It's overwhelming -- you won't stand a minute just smelling that thing," he said. But, "you can't run from it at all -- it will follow you.

"If it is in the air, you can just smell it until your nose gets used to it. But that's when the headache starts and that's when the stomachache starts."

As dramatic as chlorpyrifos' smell and immediate health effects are, Medellín is most concerned with the pesticide's long-term health impacts.

Recent studies have found that exposure to chlorpyrifos in the womb and in early childhood can lead to lasting effects on the brain, including lower IQs, an increased risk of ADHD, and learning disabilities in children, according to the Pesticide Action Network North América.

Re-registering the pesticide, Medellín said, "is like signing kids' futures to the trash." He urged regulators to, "have a heart and to take the peoples' voices into consideration."

Medellín is not alone in calling for an end to chlorpyrifos. About two weeks ago, more than 25 health professionals from across the country sent a letter to the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, demanding officials ban the use of the pesticide.

The EPA is currently working on the preliminary human health risk assessment for chlorpyrifos, before considering whether to re-register the pesticide, as is required by law every 15 years.

The health assessment is also the result of a petition filed in 2007 by Earthjustice, on behalf of Pesticide Action Network and the National Resources Defense Council, asking EPA to revoke all registrations for chlorpyrifos, and a 2010 lawsuit against EPA for failing to respond to the petition.

Under a settlement agreement, EPA must decide whether to ban chlorpyrifos by Nov. 23.

Dr. David Pepper was one of the health professionals calling for the ban. Because chlorpyrifos is toxic to humans, he said, less harmful alternatives should be used in agriculture instead.

"This is a toxin and the world would be better off if we didn't have it at all," said Pepper, a family and community medicine doctor specializing in air quality, who practiced in the San Joaquín Valley for about 15 years before moving to Contra Costa County.

"I understand that it is beneficial in ways, but I think there are the other alternatives that can also be used."

The health impacts of chlorpyrifos are especially dire in rural areas, like the Valley's agricultural communities, where children and their families are exposed to the drifting pesticide, and the dust it leaves behind in home, as well as the residue it leaves on fruits and vegetables.

Continuing use of the pesticide, would "mean continued impacts that are very serious," said Anne Katten, pesticide and work safety specialist for California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. "Because the use is so heavy in the Valley, it is really a disproportionate exposure, particularly in lower-income rural areas of the Valley."

Medellín is all too familiar with how chlorpyrifos poisons the air and people's bodies. During the peak spraying seasons from 2004 to 2006, Medellín and his family participated in two projects that monitored the air -- and their bodies -- for the pesticide.

The biomonitoring project showed that 11 of the 12 Lindsay residents participating in the study -- including Medellín -- had above average levels of the chlorpyrifos breakdown in their urine, according to Pesticide Action Network.

The "drift catching" project showed that the air in Lindsay had levels of chlorpyrifos that exceeded the EPA's levels of concern by up to 11 times. These results were included as evidence in the EPA's risk assessment.

For Medellín, the results of these studies proved that chlorpyrifos is not being used safely, and in a manner that protects human health. Even taking small precautions when spraying the pesticide, he said, could make an impact.

"I was angered, I was worried, and I felt helpless, because someone is poisoning me, and they are letting it slide," he said. "They are spraying people as if they were roaches."

But unless the EPA bans chlorpyrifos, Medellín and his family will continue to be impacted by the pesticide. That afternoon, Medellín returned to his home, took a deep breath, and caught the pesticide's distinctive smell.

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