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What’s on your citrus fruit? Trump’s EPA fights to keep controversial insecticide in use

Citrus growers hope to fend off fruit-munching katydids, but one weapon is under scrutiny. Researchers found that children growing up near fields where the insecticide chlorpyrifos was deployed exhibited autism-like symptoms. A court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the insecticide’s use, but Trump’s EPA is fighting back. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Finally, the risk of potent pesticides long used in agriculture.

    Miles O'Brien looks at why they're considered a key weapon in a farmer's arsenal, despite real health concerns.

    It's our weekly look at the Leading Edge of science.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's always harvest time in California's Central Valley, the nation's fruit basket, but little else is certain here.

    Just asked grower Bob Blakely.

  • Bob Blakely:

    I mean, if you had a million dollars, you would be better off going to Las Vegas and gambling it then you would be going out here and becoming a citrus grower.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Growers must clear a high bar to achieve success. The fruit has to be perfect.

  • Bob Blakely:

    If it doesn't look pretty sitting on the supermarket shelf, they're not going to purchase it.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Which puts them at odds with these little guys, cousins of grasshoppers called katydids, which do a lot of damage to crops.

    To kill katydids, many growers turn to a class of potent insecticides called organophosphates. The most widely used is chlorpyrifos, manufactured by DowDuPont.

    Chlorpyrifos works how fast?

  • Beth Grafton-Cardwell:

    Pretty much within minutes or hours.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Oh, OK.

  • Beth Grafton-Cardwell:

    Yes.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Serious stuff.

  • Beth Grafton-Cardwell:

    Yes.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Entomologist Beth Grafton-Cardwell is director of the Lindcove Research and Extension Center. Here, they grow citrus trees, deliberately subject them to an onslaught of pests, and then try to figure out the best way to kill them to save the produce.

    Sometimes, the solution is an organophosphate like chlorpyrifos.

  • Beth Grafton-Cardwell:

    Because they are nerve poisons, and they're broad spectrum, and they're general, and they will kill a whole array of pests.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But for the same reason organophosphates are very good at killing katydids, they are harmful to humans, especially children.

  • Brenda Eskenazi:

    So our kids continue to be exposed by virtue of living near agricultural spraying.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    U.C. Berkeley Professor and epidemiologist Brenda Eskenazi is researching the impact organophosphates have on children who live near the fields.

    She began studying 600 pregnant women in the Salinas Valley nearly 20 years ago. Eskenazi found pregnant women with signs of organophosphates in their urine gave birth earlier, had children with diminished I.Q.s, and more.

  • Brenda Eskenazi:

    Attention problems when the kid was school-age, lower I.Q. in middle school age, poor executive function a little bit later. And now we're beginning to show some signs of poor social cognition, which is kind of related to autism-like symptoms.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Claudia Angulo lives beside the fields in the Central Valley with her four children. Her 12-year-old son has ADHD. She is convinced it is caused by exposure to chlorpyrifos when he was in utero.

  • Claudia Angulo (through translator):

    Well, as a mother knowing about the pesticide that caused this in my child worries me. I'm also worried that my children continue to be exposed to this on a daily basis.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In August, a federal court ruled the EPA must ban all uses of chlorpyrifos nationwide by the end of November. The agency originally had promised two years ago it would put the ban in place by March of 2017.

    But President Trump's EPA shelved the idea to allow further study, keeping chlorpyrifos on the market. The EPA has appealed the Ninth Circuit court ruling. Meanwhile, growers say they are trying to employ an alternative approach called integrated pest management.

    One of the primary tactics? Make the enemy of their enemy their friend, that is, insects that prey on the crop-damaging pests, so-called beneficials. The approach makes chlorpyrifos less attractive for growers.

  • Bob Blakely:

    Chlorpyrifos is hard on some of our beneficials, so we don't like to use it. If we're — if we want to maintain our integrated pest management program, we would rather use something that doesn't harm our beneficials.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But many growers are changing their strategy in the face of an escalating threat posed by invasive species.

  • Beth Grafton-Cardwell:

    The first 15 years of my job, I had virtually no new invasive pests. It's escalating because there's just more people out there moving more products.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    She spends about 90 percent of her time focused on the biggest threat of all, the Asian citrus psyllid, which spreads the bacteria that causes a disease called Huanglongbing, also known as citrus greening.

    It first hit Florida in 2005 and has since decimated much of the citrus crop there. But, so far, the dreaded Huanglongbing disease has only appeared in some backyards in greater L.A., not in any commercial groves.

    California citrus growers say they need to keep the pesticide in their arsenal. They say it might come in handy as they try to avoid a repeat of the devastation in Florida.

  • Bob Blakely:

    We have to be more aggressive because we're basically fighting for our survival. If the — if HLB, or the Huanglongbing, becomes established, we won't have a citrus industry. It will kill the citrus industry, because that disease kills the trees, and there's no cure.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But while the EPA was considering a ban on chlorpyrifos, its scientists concluded there are safer alternatives to the pesticide.

    Miriam Rotkin-Ellman is a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has sued the EPA, hoping to force it to follow the advice of its own scientists to ban chlorpyrifos.

  • Miriam Rotkin-Ellman:

    It's important that we take action where the science shows us we need to get chemicals off the market. We also need investment in non-toxic farming.

    We need farming that doesn't poison the workers. We need farming that doesn't result in toxic residues coming home in everybody's grocery baskets and ending up on the plates of their children.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Indeed, chlorpyrifos is detectable on conventionally grown produce sold in grocery stores.

    Washing fruit helps, but the only guaranteed way to avoid the chemical is to buy organic. So why isn't that the preferred means of production?

  • Bob Blakely:

    But in terms of supplying the vast quantity of fruit that we need, it would be very difficult to do it organically. I have nothing against organic. A lot of people prefer that.

    The product I grow in my own home is usually organic, because I don't use a lot of pesticides around my home.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    No such luck around Claudia Angulo's home, nestled near the groves in Central Valley. She doesn't have a choice.

  • Claudia Angulo (through translator):

    We are living in a place where the economy is fueled by agriculture. So if I go farther north or farther south, that will still be the case. And I don't have the resources to move to another state. That worries me. And that's why I am fighting for a change.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The long fight over chlorpyrifos has now moved into unplowed legal ground. It's a battle between a federal court and the federal agency charged with protecting families like Claudia Angulo's.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in California's Central Valley.

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