A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the Trump administration endangered public health by keeping a widely used pesticide on the market despite extensive scientific evidence that even tiny levels of exposure can harm babies' brains.
 
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to remove chlorpyrifos from sale in the United States within 60 days.
 
A coalition of farmworkers and environmental groups sued last year after then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt reversed an Obama-era effort to ban chlorpyrifos, which is widely sprayed on citrus fruit, apples and other crops. The attorneys general for several states joined the case against EPA, including California, New York and Massachusetts.
 
Chlorpyrifos has been a divisive topic in Kern County. Farmers and ag groups have argued it is an essential tool for combating pests including the Asian citrus psyllid that threatens the Central Valley's citrus industry. But farm labor organizations have called for its prohibition because of the risk to ag workers and their families.
 
A group of farmworkers was accidentally exposed to the chemical in Kern County in May of 2017. Three months later, a state air monitoring report pointed to data indicating chlorpyrifos existed at a site in Shafter at levels 18 times higher than the EPA's "level of concern" for pregnant women.
 
Several organizations representing local agricultural interests did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday's court ruling. One that did, the Almond Board of California, stated in an email: "California almond farmers follow strict laws when using pesticides that are designed to protect worker, public, food and environmental safety, and will continue to do so based on the outcome of the court’s ruling."
 
In a split decision, the court said Thursday that Pruitt, a Republican forced to resign earlier this summer amid ethics scandals, violated federal law by ignoring the conclusions of agency scientists that chlorpyrifos is harmful.
 
"The panel held that there was no justification for the EPA's decision in its 2017 order to maintain a tolerance for chlorpyrifos in the face of scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children," Judge Jed S. Rakoff wrote in the court's opinion.
 
Michael Abboud, spokesman for acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, said the agency was reviewing the decision, but it had been unable to "fully evaluate the pesticide using the best available, transparent science."
 
EPA could potentially appeal to the Supreme Court since one member of the three-judge panel dissented from the majority ruling.
 
Environmental groups and public health advocates celebrated the court's action as a major success.
 
"Some things are too sacred to play politics with, and our kids top the list," said Erik Olson, senior director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The court has made it clear that children's health must come before powerful polluters. This is a victory for parents everywhere who want to feed their kids fruits and veggies without fear it's harming their brains or poisoning communities."
 
The attorneys general of California and New York also claimed victory.
 
"This is one more example of how then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt skirted the law and endangered the health of our children — in this case, all because he refused to curb pesticide levels found in food," Attorney General Xavier Becerra of California said in a statement.
 
Chlorpyrifos was created by Dow Chemical Co. in the 1960s. It remains among the most widely used agricultural pesticides in the United States, with the chemical giant selling about 5 million pounds domestically each year through its subsidiary Dow AgroSciences.
 
Dow did not respond to an email seeking comment. In past statements, the company has contended the chemical helps American farmers feed the world "with full respect for human health and the environment."
 
Chlorpyrifos belongs to a family of organophosphate pesticides that are chemically similar to a chemical warfare agent developed by Nazi Germany before World War II.
 
As a result of its wide use as a pesticide over the past four decades, traces of chlorpyrifos are commonly found in sources of drinking water. A 2012 study at the University of California at Berkeley found that 87 percent of umbilical-cord blood samples tested from newborn babies contained detectable levels of the pesticide.
 
Under pressure from federal regulators, Dow voluntarily withdrew chlorpyrifos for use as a home insecticide in 2000. EPA also placed "no-spray" buffer zones around sensitive sites, such as schools, in 2012.
 
In October 2015, the Obama administration proposed banning the pesticide's use on food. A risk assessment memo issued by nine EPA scientists concluded: "There is a breadth of information available on the potential adverse neurodevelopmental effects in infants and children as a result of prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos."
 
Federal law requires EPA to ensure that pesticides used on food in the United States are safe for human consumption
— especially children, who are typically far more sensitive to the negative effects of poisons.
 
— Californian staff writer John Cox contributed to this report.

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