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Commentary: The toxic playbook of the pesticide presidency

Austin American-Statesman - 7/26/2019

The announcement last week that the Trump EPA will not ban the brain-damaging pesticide chlorpyrifos was hardly surprising.

The president's giddy support for the pesticide industry began shortly after Dow Chemical contributed $1 million to his inaugural fund. Within weeks the Trump EPA had quickly reversed its plan to ban chlorpyrifos use on food crops, casting aside compelling evidence of its harm to children and nearly 1,400 of the nation's most endangered plants and animals.

Last week's affirmation of that plan came just days after the EPA suddenly expanded approval for use of the bee-killing insecticide sulfoxaflor across 200 million acres, including millions of acres in Texas.

Across the Lone Star state, cotton, corn, sorghum and citrus -- think Texas grapefruits -- can now be sprayed with a pesticide known to be extremely harmful to bees. Keep in mind, one in three bites of our food is pollinated by bees. Without them, not only do we jeopardize our ability to produce the fruits and vegetables that make up a healthy diet, but we also jeopardize the survival of bluebonnets and other wildflowers that rely on them for reproduction.

The agency's massive expansion of sulfoxaflor use spotlights the anti-science games the Trump EPA plays to approve pesticides that independent researchers have found to be harmful to human health, wildlife, or both.

Here's how that works.

The EPA's own scientists found that sulfoxaflor, a neonicotinoid insecticide, is "very highly toxic" to bees. But in expanding the pesticide's use on bee-attractive crops like soybean, watermelon, strawberry and citrus, the agency said it relied on "new" research.

Just as with the EPA's proposed re-authorization earlier this year of glyphosate -- the active ingredient in Roundup -- the agency chose to rely on industry-financed research that is unavailable for review by independent researchers.

To achieve its goal of approving sulfoxaflor, the Trump EPA rejected a highly relevant study published in the scientific journal Nature -- the world's gold standard for peer-reviewed journals -- that found even low doses of sulfoxaflor exposure had severe consequences for bumblebee reproductive success.

Instead of considering the well-documented findings of the Nature study, the EPA chose to accept only the findings of a confidential, non-peer reviewed Dow study that concluded sulfoxaflor is less harmful to bumblebees. But even the Dow study found that the level of sulfoxaflor considered safe for bumblebees to consume is five times lower than the dose the EPA had identified as safe for honey bees.

The EPA ultimately concluded -- without providing any justification -- that the dose of sulfoxaflor considered safe for honey bees is safe for all insects.

The agency failed to consider the pesticide's impacts on North America's more than 4,000 native bee species, including 800 species in Texas.

At the request of industry, the agency also waived the requirement of a full-field study of the pesticide's impacts to pollinators, saying it would "not add meaningful input to our conclusions," suggesting their approval was a foregone conclusion.

The EPA also weakened the few restrictions in place on how and when sulfoxaflor may be sprayed -- limits that had been designed to protect native pollinators and other wildlife.

In a blow to open scientific review, the EPA broke with protocol and offered no public notice or chance for independent researchers to comment.

The EPA's reliance on confidential industry studies is nothing new. The practice helps explain why the U.S. approved 85 harmful pesticides that are outlawed in other countries, according to a recent peer-reviewed study.

But the Trump EPA's dangerous habit of completely ignoring independent research by leading scientists is a national disgrace that has created a pesticide approval process offering strong protections for pesticide company profits, and little else.

And until Congress overhauls that deeply broken process, the EPA will continue to operate as a pesticide industry cheerleader, rubber-stamping pesticides and ignoring well-documented harms to our most fragile citizens and most-endangered wildlife.

Burd is director of the Center for Biological Diversity's environmental health program and serves on the federal advisory committee for EPA'sOffice of Pesticide Programs.

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