Archive for the ‘Health’ Category
An interesting post by Chris Newman:
I told a story a little while ago and received an interesting comment; here’s most of it:
Local food, organic food, “real” food produces less per unit of land farmed without a demonstrable improvement in nourishment. Do you really want to have to expand the amount of land in cultivation to feed the earth? Wholesale going “local” means having more limited diets. As long as this is limited to zealots and those who want to be accepted by their organic friends, and for whom the amount of their income spent on food is negligible, that’s great. It’s a lifestyle expense. But if you want to feed the prisons, the hospitals, the schools, and do it on a budget, this is an awful, awful approach.
He’s right, but just kinda.
Where he’s right: Organic farming, as it’s commonly imagined and implemented, does have higher costs, lower yields, and more resource requirements because of the lower yields. That’s because organic farming is little more than conventional farming with all the tools taken away. It’s a well-intended but insane way to farm, and it will kill us all if we decide this is the way to “fix” agriculture.
His response includes a number of assumptions, of which I will point out a few to discuss:
- He presumes the Organic Shahada: There is no Organic but Organic, and the USDA is his prophet. Or less controversially: Local = Real = Organic = Sustainable = Organic = Real = Local
- Methods for producing economically viable yields don’t exist outside of conventional, non-organic agriculture
- Going Local means more limited diets without improvements in quality
- “Budget” food produced by conventional agriculture reflect their real costs
Let’s address these in reverse order. . .
I note again that the red herring of whether conventional crops are as “nourishing” as organic crops—that is, whether conventional crops contain less nutrients and micronutrients. They don’t, and that produces a smug expression of the faces of those supporting conventional agriculture, but that also misses the point: Most buy organic produce not because organic means more nourishment but because organic means no pesticide residue. Pesticides are, of course, toxins and include some very powerful toxins that particularly affect the young, from in utero through early life. Conventional produce can (and generally does) include toxic residue from pesticides.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) routinely lists the “Dirty Dozen” foods that have the highest pesticide residues (even after rinsing: all measurements are made after foods are thoroughly rinsed) and recommends that for those foods you purchase those grown using organic methods. (Strawberries always seem to top the list. It’s been years since I’ve had conventional strawberries since I always buy those organically.)
They also list the “Clean Fifteen,” those foods that, though grown using conventional methods, have negligible pesticide (i.e., toxic) residue after rinsing.
It is amazing how often something that is scientifically known and demonstrated to work will be ignored in favor of approaches that in fact make the problem worse. (I blogged one interesting example a few days ago.) Iceland took some findings of behavioral science and applied them. Emma Young reports in Mosaic what happened:
Today, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 per cent in 1998 to 5 per cent in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 per cent to 7 per cent. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 per cent to just 3 per cent.
The way the country has achieved this turnaround has been both radical and evidence-based, but it has relied a lot on what might be termed enforced common sense. “This is the most remarkably intense and profound study of stress in the lives of teenagers that I have ever seen,” says Milkman. “I’m just so impressed by how well it is working.”
Read the article for what they did and why. It really is a matter of asking basic questions: Why do teens get high? For the feelings. What causes the feelings? Brain chemistry. Can the same brain chemistry be triggered by other, more benign causes?
Well, there are sports, and learning things, and so on…
It’s quite a fascinating article, and note the many benefits of Iceland’s approach as compared to the approach the US uses (break into people’s houses, steal their possessions through asset forfeiture, lock people up, create cause for cop corruption, and so on). That is, not just lower use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, but also the development of more skills and knowledge in teens (who soon will be adults, and probably more successful as a result of a more productive adolescence).
In the context of the article, watch again this video—but read the article first:
It’s important to remember that the EPA is a Republican creation. Madeline Ostrander reports in the New Yorker:
the early nineteen-sixties, a young lawyer named William Ruckelshaus was assigned to Indiana’s state board of health to prosecute cases of toxic dumping. At the time, it was commonplace for manufacturers to discard untreated industrial swill—ammonia, cyanide, pesticides, petroleum waste, slag from steel plants, “pickle liquor” (sulfuric acid)—into the nearest sewer, river, or lake. Sometimes, it formed piles of noxious froth nearly as tall as a house. “Those rivers were cesspools,” Ruckelshaus told me recently. He and his colleague Gerald Hansler, an environmental engineer, began touring the state in a white panel truck. They collected water samples and snapped photographs of fish corpses—bluegills, sunfish, and perch, poisoned by the effluent that gushed from industrial outfalls. Then they wrote up the evidence and brought charges against those responsible. Yet, however diligently they worked, their efforts were often regarded with suspicion by Indiana’s governor, who wanted to keep businesses from moving to states with even laxer environmental standards. “I just saw how powerless the states were to act,” Ruckelshaus recalled.
Ruckelshaus brought this lesson with him to Washington, D.C., in 1970, when President Richard Nixon appointed him to set up and run the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. From a modest cluster of rooms on L Street, Ruckelshaus led the agency in its first swift actions. After less than two weeks, he announced that the E.P.A. planned to sue the cities of Atlanta, Cleveland, and Detroit unless they made a serious effort to stop polluting their rivers with sewage. Later, he refused to give automakers an extension on their mandate to install catalytic converters in all new vehicles—a requirement that eventually resulted in large cuts to toxic, smog-forming emissions. And, in 1972, Ruckelshaus’s E.P.A. banned most uses of the pesticide DDT, a move that helped save a national icon, the American bald eagle, from extinction. More than four decades on, the E.P.A.’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act has averted millions of cases of respiratory disease and continues to save hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, according to a series of agency analyses. For the most part, urban rivers are no longer cesspools, and beaches once fouled with sewage are swimmable. Lake Erie is troubled but no longer deemed dead, as it was in the sixties. Lead levels in the coastal waters off Southern California have dropped a hundredfold.
Ruckelshaus, who is now eighty-four, has watched the ascent of Donald Trump with some trepidation. In August, he and William Reilly, the E.P.A. administrator under President George H. W. Bush, endorsed Hillary Clinton, lambasting Trump as ignorant of the G.O.P.’s “historic contributions to science-driven environmental policy.” The President-elect’s pick to head the E.P.A., the Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has argued before Congress that the agency “was never intended to be our nation’s frontline environmental regulator,” and that the states should have primary authority. That argument is now a favorite among conservatives. But according to Philip Angell, who became an E.P.A. special assistant in 1970 and has worked with Ruckelshaus on and off for the past four and a half decades, Pruitt’s interpretation ignores the history and intent of the laws that define the agency’s mission. The statutes give the E.P.A. “the primary authority to set standards and enforce them if the states won’t do it,” he told me. “The whole point was to set a federal baseline.” One of those statutes, the Clean Air Act, is also “famously capacious,” as Ruckelshaus and Reilly wrote in a legal brief they filed last year in support of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. The act, they point out, obliges the E.P.A. to tackle even those environmental problems that no one knew about or understood in 1970, including climate change.
Pruitt not only denies the scientific consensus on global warming but also disputes the E.P.A.’s authority to act on it. He has called the Clean Power Plan an “executive fiat,” as if it were produced at Obama’s whim rather than through the interpretation of the law. Both his LinkedIn profile and his biography on the Oklahoma Attorney General office’s Web site boast that he is a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” He has a hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wednesday morning, and if he makes it through the confirmation process, he’s likely to try to weaken the E.P.A.’s authority. The Republican Party platform envisions shrinking the agency into “an independent bipartisan commission,” and Trump and his adviser Myron Ebell, who is leading the E.P.A. transition, have talked about abolishing it altogether.
But doing away with the E.P.A. would be no easy task, according to Ruckelshaus and other legal experts. “You have all the statutes the E.P.A. administers,” he said. “You’d have to have a debate on each of those laws.” In the early nineteen-eighties, when President Ronald Reagan’s first E.P.A. appointee, Anne Gorsuch Burford, tried to pick the agency apart, she ultimately resigned amid scandal and corruption investigations. Reagan summoned Ruckelshaus to Washington to put the E.P.A. back together. In the past three decades, the agency has had a mixed record, but no administrator has successfully sabotaged its mission. President George W. Bush’s first two E.P.A. appointments were moderates, though his third, Stephen Johnson, stymied efforts to regulate greenhouse gases. And even under Obama’s progressive environmental policies, budget cuts have made it harder for regulators to police pollution violations.
Today, there is ample evidence of what happens when environmental regulation fails—notably the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. But although there is a growing citizen movement in the United States clamoring for more aggressive action on climate change, the E.P.A. itself “has no constituency,” Ruckelshaus said. . .
Is Trump deliberately picking people who are qualified for the jobs he gives them? Perhaps. Maybe he doesn’t want his appointees getting view more favorably than himself, and given his current popularity levels, he has to go to the bottom of the barrel to get people less qualified than he is.
Politico has a report on Pruitt, but Kevin Drum points out that Pruitt is astonishingly (and perhaps deliberately) ignorant of some serious environmental problems, such as lead. Drum writes:
Well, we’ve now officially gone from this:
Clinton proposes goal of ending lead exposure in 5 years
— Ben Adler (@badler) April 13, 2016
Pruitt on lead exposure’s dangers in children: “I don’t know. I’ve not looked at the scientific research on that.”
— Rebecca Leber (@rebleber) January 18, 2017
If Pruitt had been asked about the effects of zirconium dioxide on Alzheimer’s disease or something, then sure. Nobody knows everything, after all. But lead paint has been in the news for something like 50 years now and Flint’s water pipes have been in big, bold headlines for the past two. You’d have to work pretty hard not to be aware of what lead does.
Still, if you’re bound and determined never to regulate anything, no matter how dangerous, then I suppose it pays to aggressively shut your eyes to environmental dangers of all kinds. Welcome to the New Model EPA, folks.
Jason Kottke blogs:
I posted earlier about Atul Gawande’s piece in the New Yorker on the importance of incremental care in medicine. One of the things that the Affordable Care Act did was to make it illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage to people with “preexisting conditions”, which makes it difficult for those people to receive the type of incremental care Gawande touts. And who has these preexisting conditions? An estimated 27% of US adults under 65, including Gawande’s own son:
In the next few months, the worry is whether Walker and others like him will be able to have health-care coverage of any kind. His heart condition makes him, essentially, uninsurable. Until he’s twenty-six, he can stay on our family policy. But after that? In the work he’s done in his field, he’s had the status of a freelancer. Without the Affordable Care Act’s protections requiring all insurers to provide coverage to people regardless of their health history and at the same price as others their age, he’d be unable to find health insurance. Republican replacement plans threaten to weaken or drop these requirements, and leave no meaningful solution for people like him. And data indicate that twenty-seven per cent of adults under sixty-five are like him, with past health conditions that make them uninsurable without the protections.
That’s 52 million people, potentially ineligible for health insurance. And that’s not counting children. Spurred on by Gawande, people have been sharing their preexisting conditions stories on Twitter with the hashtag #the27Percent.
The 27% figure comes from a recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation:
A new Kaiser Family Foundation analysis finds that 52 million adults under 65 — or 27 percent of that population — have pre-existing health conditions that would likely make them uninsurable if they applied for health coverage under medical underwriting practices that existed in most states before insurance regulation changes made by the Affordable Care Act.
In eleven states, at least three in ten non-elderly adults would have a declinable condition, according to the analysis: West Virginia (36%), Mississippi (34%), Kentucky (33%), Alabama (33%), Arkansas (32%), Tennessee (32%), Oklahoma (31%), Louisiana (30%), Missouri (30%), Indiana (30%) and Kansas (30%).
36% uninsurable in West Virginia! You’ll note that all 11 of those states voted for Trump in the recent election and in West Virginia, Trump carried the day with 68.7% of the vote, the highest percentage of any state. The states whose people need the ACA’s protection the most voted most heavily against their own interest.
Oh and one last thing. . .
Sarah Stillman has a lengthy and interesting article in the New Yorker:
A week after Donald Trump’s election, a thirty-year-old cognitive scientist named Maya Shankar purchased a plane ticket to Flint, Michigan. Shankar held one of the more unorthodox jobs in the Obama White House, running the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, also known as the President’s “nudge unit.” When she launched the team, in early 2014, it felt, Shankar recalls, “like a startup in my parents’ basement”—no budget, no mandate, no bona-fide employees. Within two years, the small group of scientists had become a staff of dozens—including an agricultural economist, an industrial psychologist, and “human-centered designers”—working with more than twenty federal agencies on seventy projects, from fixing gaps in veterans’ health care to relieving student debt. Usually, the initiatives had, at their core, one question: Could the growing body of knowledge about the quirks of the human brain be used to improve public policy?
For months, Shankar had been thinking about how to bring behavioral science to bear on the problems in Flint, where a crisis stemming from lead contamination of the drinking water had stretched on for almost two years. She wondered if lessons from the beleaguered city could inform the Administration’s approach to the broader threat posed by lead across America—in pipes, in paint, in dust, and in soil. “Flint is not the only place poisoning kids,” Shankar said.
In recent years, behavioral science has become a voguish field. In 2002, the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work with a colleague, Amos Tversky, exploring the peculiarities of human decision-making in the face of uncertainty. (Their collaboration is the subject of a popular new book by Michael Lewis, “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds.”) A basic premise of the discipline they’d helped to create was that people’s cognition is bias-prone, and susceptible to the cognitive equivalent of optical illusions. As a result, small tweaks of presentation or circumstance could make a major difference: if a judge rendered a decision about granting parole just before a meal, the inmate’s odds for a favorable outcome dipped to near zero; just after the judge ate, the chances rose to around sixty-five per cent. Grocers had learned that they could sell double the amount of soup if they placed a sign above their cans reading “limit of 12 per person.”
But, for all the field’s potential, its advances seemed mostly to have served the private sector. (And there they often veered toward sly consumer coercion.) A prominent exception was the “nudge,” a notion advanced by the legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein, now at Harvard Law School, and the University of Chicago behavioral economist Richard Thaler, in their 2008 best-seller “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” They stressed the role of “choice architecture”: the countless factors that coalesce around a given decision, often shaping outcomes in crucial, if barely visible, ways that could be rearranged. Sunstein and Thaler described the concept with public policy very much in mind. The subtle context in which we make choices, they theorized, could and should be stacked in favor of the social good. In the public sector, this meant gently nudging citizens toward certain choices, through techniques like automatic enrollment and reminder prompts, that take into account the fact that most of us, as Thaler told me, are “more like Homer Simpson than like Albert Einstein.”
President Obama saw the appeal of the nudge. In 2009, he tapped Sunstein to head the most bureaucratic-sounding of bureaucracies, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. During the next three years, Sunstein worked to bring behavioral insights into the government’s approach to policy. But the reach of these ideas remained limited. The nudge’s most appealing feature, its simplicity, was also among its constraints. Though the tweaks had vast potential implications, their small-bore design made it difficult to address the larger forces behind stubborn structural challenges. “We can’t take on some big problems, like climate change, and solve them entirely with nudges,” Thaler told me.
Shankar agreed, and, in her White House role, she wanted to test a wider range of tactics and delve deeper into problems. For the first two years, her team focussed mostly on programs that were narrowly defined, even though they could still affect thousands or millions of Americans: for instance, easing health-insurance enrollment, or helping veterans access education benefits. But Shankar was eager to see how her team might weigh in on more systemic, seemingly intractable problems associated with inequality, from homelessness to racial bias in policing. Flint seemed like a good place to find out. The city’s water crisis was tied up in deeply entrenched, even multigenerational, issues: “its racial history, its socioeconomic circumstances, all of it,” Shankar told me. Early last year, the team began gathering research relevant to Flint, drawing, in part, from public-health scholarship. In October, she and a colleague, an economist named Nate Higgins, visited the city for the first time, in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, to ask residents about their evolving needs.
Then, on November 8th, Donald Trump was elected. For days, Shankar walked around shell-shocked. Her team, if it even continued to exist in the new Administration, would soon belong to one of the most anti-science President-elects in history, who has called climate change a “hoax,” spread unproven claims about vaccinations’ ties to autism, and mocked new brain-science-backed N.F.L. guidelines to prevent concussions, saying that football has grown “soft.”
In 2010, the United Kingdom became the first country to set up a government office devoted solely to making use of behavioral science. Backed by the new Conservative government, a hodgepodge crew of social scientists, psychologists, and data nerds, calling themselves the Behavioural Insights Team, tried to find opportunities for government savings and other improvements through simple tweaks. People were less tardy with their taxes, for instance, when they were shown that most of their neighbors paid on time. Many of the British team’s projects aimed to use behavioral research for social uplift. In one, it conducted a randomized controlled trial to determine which of eight different prompts was most effective in soliciting participation in organ donation. (The winning message: “If you needed an organ transplant would you have one? If so please help others.”)
More recently, the team addressed British doctors’ overprescribing of antibiotics, contacting outliers who’d written prescriptions at the highest rates. The letter it sent did little more than note the recipient’s status on the far end of the statistical spectrum, but the prescription rates dropped by three per cent during the next six months. Some critics dismissed such accomplishments as overhyped fluff; others warned of a rising nanny state. Even the team’s guiding mantra—“Make It Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely”—could be seen as nothing more than common sense.
Shankar got interested in the field as a teen-ager. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she once thought she’d become a classical violinist. (For several years, she was taught by Itzhak Perlman.) A hand injury derailed her musical aspirations, and, while recovering at home, in Connecticut, she happened upon a book by the psychologist Steven Pinker and became enamored of cognitive science. As a undergraduate at Yale, she conducted research on primates, travelling to a tropical island to study rhesus macaques, with the aim of mapping a feature of cognition known as “essentialism”: “Does a monkey know what makes a coconut a coconut, and an apple an apple?” (On the island, she learned to dodge monkey urine from the tree canopy overhead; the macaques carried a version of herpes B that could be lethal to humans.) Later, as a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral student at Oxford, she visited a famous flavor factory in Ohio, where she tested whether she could hijack the sensory perceptions of professional flavorists: giving them a lime-tinted beverage, say, that had the taste of tangerines.
After Shankar did her postdoctoral research, at Stanford’s Decision Neuroscience Lab, she began looking for a job. In the field of cognitive science, many of the opportunities for an aspiring researcher were of a particular type, geared toward helping to make big companies richer, or rich people thinner, or thin people more alluring on algorithm-based dating sites. Behavioral science’s bro-culture adaptations—the life hack, the quantified self—had proliferated. Shankar worried about her next steps. She didn’t want to spend her life in a suit, or in a lab, or on a remote island, dodging monkey excretions.
One day in 2012, she flew from California to a friend’s wedding in Connecticut. While there, she had tea with her college mentor, the Yale psychologist Laurie Santos. “I feel like the job I want doesn’t even exist,” Shankar told her. She added, sheepishly, “I guess I’ll go into consulting?”
Santos mentioned that she’d just returned from a conference, where she’d heard about the Department of Agriculture’s efforts to put behavioral science into practice to aid children from low-income families. Through a small nudge—a government initiative that automatically enrolled kids in free federal school-lunch programs, by simply cross-checking their eligibility for preëxisting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (snap) benefits—hundreds of thousands of children were fed, without the shame and the bureaucratic hassle that kept parents from signing them up.
The idea that a minor government modification could decrease a child’s hunger—and perhaps, in turn, improve his or her trajectory in school—stuck with Shankar. It was simple, even obvious, as the best behavioral insights often are. Later, she learned that the Department of Agriculture supported a whole slew of behavioral projects. One, conducted by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, found that if school cafeterias rebranded plain vegetables with catchy names—X-Ray Vision Carrots, say, or Power Punch Broccoli—consumption soared.
Shankar felt that she’d found her path. She reached out to Sunstein, who had returned to Harvard, and asked if he knew of any openings in government. He gave her the name of a contact at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Shankar sent what seemed like a long-shot pitch to the deputy director, Tom Kalil, to join the office and find ways to weave behavioral insights into the heart of public policy. They met, and, to her surprise, Kalil hired her as a senior science adviser. Shankar was twenty-six.
She moved to Washington, D.C., in early 2013, leaving her bike and her books in California, “in case things didn’t work out.” Even before her new job began, she e-mailed Kalil with the outlines of a broader aspiration. “One of my more ambitious, longer-term goals,” she wrote, “is to begin laying down the foundation for the creation of a U.S.-based behavioral insights team.”
By the start of 2014, with guidance from some of the field’s big names, Shankar had recruited her first five experts from academic institutions and nonprofits. They began working closely with a growing list of agencies, including the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, and the Treasury.
That year, the team sought to put together small collaborations that could garner quick results. It formed a partnership with the Department of Education and a nonprofit, uAspire, to find a way to lessen “summer melt.” Typically, twenty to thirty per cent of students in urban districts who were accepted to college didn’t matriculate, owing to last-minute burdens like financial-aid deadlines. The team helped devise a pilot program in which students were sent eight personalized text messages over the summer, prompting them to follow through. Matriculation rates increased by several percentage points. Shankar’s group offered to help other agencies with similar tweaks, to facilitate microloans to farmers, or to reduce the overprescribing of antipsychotics and other drugs by Medicare providers.
Then, on September 15, 2015, President Obama gave the team the ultimate nudge: an unusual Executive Order, titled “Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People.” It formalized the team as an official entity, and urged all federal agencies to “develop strategies for applying behavioral science insights to programs and, where possible, rigorously test and evaluate the impact of these insights.”
Four months later, the President declared a state of emergency in Flint. Shankar saw her chance to test the mandate’s reach. . .
Sharon Lerner reports in The Intercept:
On Mondays, Magda and Amilcar Galindo take their daughter Eva to self-defense class. Eva is 12 but her trusting smile and arching pigtails make her look younger. Diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, Eva doesn’t learn or behave like the typical 12-year-old. She struggles to make change, and she needs help with reading and social situations. Eva’s classmates are sometimes unkind to her, and Magda worries for her daughter’s feelings and her safety. So once a week, after they drive her from her middle school in Modesto, California, to her tutor in nearby Riverbank, the Galindos rush off to the gym where they cheer Eva on as she wrestles with a heavy bag and punches the air with her skinny arms.
The Galindos wish they could have protected their daughter from whatever originally caused her troubles, which began in infancy, when she screamed incessantly. As she got older, Eva was slow to talk and make friends. Nine years ago, when her pediatrician diagnosed her with autism, he told the Galindos that nobody really knew why children developed such problems. And in some ways, that is still true; both the causes of these neurodevelopmental conditions and their increase among American children remain mysterious.
But a study the family participated in when Eva was 3 has pointed to one possible culprit: chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide that was sprayed near their home when Magda was pregnant. At the time, the family was living in Salida, a small town in central California surrounded by fields of almonds, corn, and peaches. The Galindos could see the planted fields just down the street from their stucco house. And Magda could smell them from the patio where she spent much of her pregnancy. Sometimes the distinct essence of cow manure filled the air. At other times she sniffed the must of fertilizer. And there was a third odor, too — “the smell of the chemical,” said Galindo. “You can tell, it’s different from mulch and manure. When they sprayed, the smell was different.”
In 2014, the first and most comprehensive look at the environmental causes of autism and developmental delay, known as the CHARGE study, found that the nearby application of agricultural pesticides greatly increases the risk of autism. Women who lived less than a mile from fields where chlorpyrifos was sprayed during their second trimesters of pregnancy, as Magda did, had their chances of giving birth to an autistic child more than triple. And it was just one of dozens of recent studies that have linked even small amounts of fetal chlorpyrifos exposure to neurodevelopmental problems, including ADHD, intelligence deficits, and learning difficulties.
On November 10, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a groundbreaking report laying out the serious dangers of chlorpyrifos. The “Chlorpyrifos Revised Human Health Risk Assessment,” as it was called, laid out the evidence that the pesticide can cause intelligence deficits and attention, memory, and motor problems in children. According to the report, 1- and 2-year-old children risk exposures from food alone that are 14,000 percent above the level the agency now thinks is safe.
Dow, the giant chemical company that patented chlorpyrifos and still makes most of the products containing it, has consistently disputed the mounting scientific evidence that its blockbuster chemical harms children. But the government report made it clear that the EPA now accepts the independent science showing that the pesticide used to grow so much of our food is unsafe. The “pre-publication copy” of the report stated that “residues of chlorpyrifos on most individual food crops exceed the ‘reasonable certainty of no harm’ safety standard under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act,” which means, in simple terms, that any given sample of food may contain harmful levels of chlorpyrifos. In addition, estimated drinking water and non-drinking water exposures to the chemical also exceed safety standards. The next step was to finalize a chlorpyrifos ban.
Public health advocates have been calling on the EPA to ban the pesticide for years. Four months before the report came out, a group of 47 scientists and doctors with expertise in children’s brain development, including the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, issued a grave warning that toxic chemicals in the environment were increasing children’s risks of developing behavioral, cognitive, and social disorders and contributing to the rise in cases of autism and ADHD. The TENDR statement, as it was called, included a list of the worst neurotoxins and amounted to a desperate plea for immediate action. Organophosphate pesticides, the class of chemical to which chlorpyrifos belongs, was at the top of the list.
Yet when the EPA’s report was published indicating that the agency was finally taking action on chlorpyrifos, there was little rejoicing among the scientists and environmental advocates, because two days earlier, Donald Trump had won the presidential election.
Although the new risk assessment was the missing puzzle piece necessary to get chlorpyrifos out of the food chain and water supply, the law requires a 60-day comment period before such a decision can be finalized. Trump will be inaugurated three days after the comment period ends on January 17. The final deadline to incorporate the comments on the report is March 31, 2017, giving the new administration almost two months to derail the long-awaited regulation. [The GOP in general is very much opposed to regulations that, in their view, restrict companies from making as much money as they could in the absence of regulations. – LG]
Chlorpyrifos is the “Coca-Cola of growers,” as one former staffer of California’s Office of Pesticides described it to me. “Everyone uses it out here.” Across the country, some 44,000 American farms collectively use between 6 million and 10 million pounds of chlorpyrifos each year on everything from corn, soybeans, asparagus, and peaches to strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, walnuts, and cranberries. Used on more than half of all apples and broccoli sold in the U.S., chlorpyrifos makes its way into the vast majority of American kitchens. The chemical has also been found in 15 percent of water samples taken around the country between 1991 and 2012 by the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water Quality Assessment Program.
Several farmers I spoke with at a Dow-sponsored citrus growers convention in Exeter, California, explained that they used Lorsban, one of Dow’s chlorpyrifos-containing products, because it is one of the most reliable and affordable products available to kill ants. The growers were also clearly hoping the pesticide, which kills some 400 different species, would help combat the Asian citrus psyllid, a sap-sucking bug that has been killing fruit trees around the country.
It’s a testament to both the deference the government has shown large companies and the lack of foresight about the consequences of spraying our food with toxic chemicals that the pesticide could become such a widely used tool. After all, there has never been much doubt that organophosphates harm people. German chemist Gerhard Schrader first documented the effects of the chemicals on the human nervous system while trying to develop pesticides to protect food for the Nazi war effort. As Schrader noted in 1936 after he and a colleague were severely sickened by a mere drop of organophosphate that landed on a lab bench near them, people who were exposed choked, shook, vomited, and sweated. Because exposure sometimes led to seizures, comas, and death, the discovery spawned the use of organophosphates as weapons and Schrader spent much of the war producing one of these first nerve agents, Tabun, at a secret Nazi lab.
More than two decades later, the environmental writer Rachel Carson described the effects of organophosphate pesticides, or organic phosphorus insecticides, as she called them, in terms eerily similar to Schrader’s in her 1962 bestseller, “Silent Spring”: “Their target is the nervous system, whether the victim is an insect or a warm-blooded animal. … The movements of the whole body become uncoordinated: tremors, muscular spasms, convulsions, and death quickly result.”
Even back then, the organophosphate pesticides that were supposed to focus their lethal power on cockroaches, ticks, ants, and termites were clearly triggering some of the same reactions in humans. . .