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26th Jan 2020

Investigation

Pesticide chlorpyrifos banned by EU

  • The European Commission proposed the ban on the basis of interim opinions from the European Food Safety Authority (Photo: Marcos Garcia Rey)

EU member states have voted to ban from the market chlorpyrifos, a pesticide which is toxic to the brain in both its forms, and has been the subject of a long-running Le Monde and EUobserver investigation.

During a meeting of the the standing committee on plants, animals, food and feed (SCOPAFF) on Friday (6 December), the member states representatives voted against the renewal of the authorisation for both pesticide - which was due to expire on 31 January 2020.

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That means both chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos-methyl, two pesticides harmful to the brains of foetuses and young children, will no longer be available in the European Union (EU).

The European Commission proposed the ban on the basis of interim opinions from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

At the beginning of August, at the Commission's request, EFSA published two opinions on the effects of the substances on human health. Chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos-methyl, the agency concluded, have "potential" genotoxic effects (harmful to the DNA in cells), and are toxic to the developing brain.

Despite the heavy lobbying of the manufacturers, Corteva and Ascenza, as well as their allies, to prevent the ban, it failed to convince the member states.

Invented by Dow (now Corteva since its merger with DuPont), the pesticide has been on the market since 1965.

But scientific evidence built over the past two decades shows that exposure to chlorpyrifos during pregnancy and in the early years of life causes significant developmental delays, autism spectrum disorders, IQ deficits of up to seven points, and attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity.

The two regulations endorsing the decision are expected to be formally adopted in January, according to the EU commission.

Member states will then ban the products containing the substances at the national level, as this action falls within their competence.

Grace period

They may grant a "grace period" of three months to clear stocks. After which the products can no longer be placed on the market or used in the EU.

"This is an important decision", Axel Mie, associate professor at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, told to Le Monde in an email.

The research of Mie, and his colleagues Christina Rudén and Philippe Grandjean, played a decisive role.

In 2017, they had exhumed the only study provided by Dow to the European authorities on the neurodevelopmental toxicity of chlorpyrifos, and found that it clearly showed adverse effects on the brain of rats.

However, this data had never been evaluated by the European authorities. "We must now work to ensure that an approval of pesticides based on incorrect conclusions in industry-funded studies is not repeated", Mie wrote. "Had the relevant data been correctly reported, this decision might have come 20 years ago."

In a statement, seven NGOs welcomed "a historic move".

"While we can't take away the decades of exposure to these substances and the associated neurodevelopmental impacts, Genon K. Jensen, executive director of the NGO Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) said, "the ban of both forms of chlorpyrifos is a major win for the healthy development of today's children and future generations".

In an email to Le Monde, Corteva said they were "disappointed" by the EU's decision.

"No active substance has been researched more thoroughly than chlorpyrifos," they wrote.

Author bio

Staffan Dahllofis an investigative journalist in Denmark, and Stéphane Horel is a journalist with Le Monde.

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