For half a century, U.S. staple foods such as corn, wheat, apples and citrus have been sprayed with chlorpyrifos, a dangerous pesticide that can damage the developing brains of children, causing reduced IQ, loss of working memory, and attention deficit disorders.

Earthjustice, among other groups, has for years pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban chlorpyrifos, as it is known to harm health, water and wildlife. The EPA was expected to make a decision by March 31, under a court order deadline. On March 29, the EPA refused to ban the pesticide. (Read reactions to the EPA’s decision.)

“EPA is refusing to ban a pesticide that harms children’s brains. It is acting contrary to the law, the science, and a court order. In a word: unconscionable,” said Patti Goldman, managing attorney at Earthjustice, in response to the EPA’s decision. A week after the EPA’s announcement, Earthjustice, representing Pesticide Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council, asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to order the EPA to act based on its own scientific conclusions and permanently ban chlorpyrifos. Two months later, the court declined to direct the EPA to decide on whether to ban chlorpyrifos.

Here’s what you should know about chlorpyrifos and the ongoing struggle to keep this dangerous chemical away from our food, water, and wildlife:

What is chlorpyrifos?

Chlorpyrifos (pronounced: klawr-pir-uh-fos) is a neurotoxic pesticide widely used in U.S. agriculture. Generally sprayed on crops, it’s used to kill a variety of agricultural pests. It has a slightly skunky odor, similar to rotten eggs or garlic, and can be harmful if it is touched, inhaled, or eaten.
Chlorpyrifos is acutely toxic and associated with neurodevelopmental harms in children. Prenatal exposures to chlorpyrifos are associated with lower birth weight, reduced IQ, loss of working memory, attention disorders, and delayed motor development.
Acute poisoning suppresses the enzyme that regulates nerve impulses in the body and can cause convulsions, respiratory paralysis, and, in extreme cases, death. Chlorpyrifos is one of the pesticides most often linked to pesticide poisonings.

How are people exposed to chlorpyrifos?

People are exposed to chlorpyrifos through residues on food, drinking water contamination, and toxic spray drift from pesticide applications. Farmworkers are exposed to it from mixing, handling, and applying the pesticide; as well as from entering fields where chlorpyrifos was recently sprayed. Residential uses of chlorpyrifos ended in 2000 after EPA found unacceptable risks to kids.
Children often experience greater exposure to chlorpyrifos and other pesticides because they frequently put their hands in their mouths and, relative to adults, they eat more fruits and vegetables, and drink more water and juice for their weight.

What are the current legal issues?

In 2007, Pesticide Action Network and Natural Resources Defense Council filed a petition with EPA seeking a chlorpyrifos ban based on the growing evidence of risks and harms.
Seven years later, following several lawsuits and delays, EPA had still not acted on the petition. In September 2014, on behalf of PAN and NRDC, Earthjustice filed a petition in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to compel EPA to act on the petition.
The following year, while calling EPA delays “egregious” and noting the agency sent a “litany of partial status reports, missed deadlines, and vague promises of future action,” the court ordered EPA to issue a final response to the petition by October 31, 2015.
That deadline was not met, and last August the court said EPA had to take final action on the petition by March 31 of this year. EPA’s own human health risk assessments show that there are no safe uses for chlorpyrifos.

What’s happening now?

On March 29, despite the overwhelming evidence that the pesticide harms children, workers and the environment, the EPA issued a decision refusing to ban the pesticide, because the agency wanted to continue studying the science.
On April 5, following EPA’s refusal to ban chlorpyrifos, Earthjustice—representing Pesticide Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council—asked the court to order the EPA to act based on the agency’s own scientific conclusions, which, under the law, would require EPA to ban chlorpyrifos. EPA opposed the motion on April 28, and Earthjustice filed a reply on May 3. The groups are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to direct the EPA to make a decision on the merits of the petition within 30 days. Specifically, the groups are asking the court to order EPA to ban all food uses of chlorpyrifos based on its findings that the pesticide is unsafe. On July 18, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to direct the EPA to decide on whether to ban chlorpyrifos.
On June 6, Earthjustice filed an administrative appeal to the EPA, on behalf of a dozen health, labor and civil rights organizations, urging the federal government to ban chlorpyrifos. The new appeal challenges, on its merits, the EPA’s March action that allows chlorpyrifos to continue to be used on food crops. The attorneys general of New York, California, Washington, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland and Vermont filed their own appeal that same day, also calling for a ban. It is now up to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to decide the appeal.
And on July 25, Senators Tom Udall (D-NM), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kamala Harris (D-CA) , Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA) unveiled a first-of-its-kind bill—The Protect Children, Farmers & Farmworkers from Nerve Agent Pesticides Act—that would ban chlorpyrifos. Take action to tell your senators you support S. 1624.

Is there anything I can do?

Urge your elected officials to keep this toxic pesticide out of our food, our water, our schools and yards, and our bodies.
Since the EPA’s refusal on March 29 to ban chlorpyrifos, 60,914 Earthjustice supporters have sent messages to their Congressional representatives, governor and state Attorney General, asking them to hold the EPA accountable. Read just a few of the messages—and send your own message today.
An apple a day won’t keep the doctor away if it has pesticides in it.
– EVELINE, Ellicott City, MD