Meet Chlorpyrifos, the Brain-Damaging Pesticide the EPA Won't Ban

The EPA chose not to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to brain damage.
••• boonchai wedmakawand/Moment/GettyImages

A recent ruling from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came with some good news and bad news. The good news is for the makers of chloroforms. Guess what, guys? Your product isn’t banned!

The bad news comes for anyone who likes to munch on produce like strawberries, oranges and broccoli: Your snack might come with a side of brain damage.

I’m Sorry, What?


Chlorpyrifos is a pesticide used on a variety of crops used to keep out invasive insects. It used to be pretty common in household products such as insecticide and cleaning solutions. But after organizations including the World Health Organization and even the EPA itself found that even minimal exposure to the pesticide could lead to neurological damage and mental delays in children, companies started to remove it from those products. A lot of that damage can come before a child is even born – the studies found that prenatal exposure was particularly concerning.

But as it was disappearing from household products, it was becoming even more common in pesticides for common crops like fruits and vegetables. Two states, Hawaii and New York, have banned the pesticide (though neither have fully gone into effect yet). But California, one of the country’s biggest growers, sprayed chlorpyrifos on more than 640,000 acres of land in 2016.

Why isn’t Anyone Trying to Get it Out of Pesticides?

Many people are! Or, at least, they were. Back in 2015, the Obama administration moved to ban the pesticide completely, but it hadn’t gone into effect yet when the Trump administration took over. Trump’s choice for the EPA head, Scott Pruitt, announced in 2017 that the EPA would reverse the Obama ban, which was quickly met with several legal challenges.

Then, last week, those legal challenges came to an end with Pruitt and the EPA announcing it would not ban the use of the pesticide.

The decision disappointed many environmental and agricultural experts. They maintain that not only does this have the potential to harm children, it’s not even an essential pesticide – there are alternatives on the market that can also work to keep out unwanted insects.

The registration for chlorpyrifos is up in 2022, so the pesticide and potential ban could be under review again in a few years. Until then, read your labels – and hope that if the EPA isn’t going to act, maybe your state will.

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