Most uses of controversial pesticide are now prohibited in Oregon

By Alejandro Figueroa (OPB)
Jan. 16, 2024 2 p.m.

Oregon’s Department of Agriculture began phasing out the use of chlorpyrifos in 2020. Now, the state will ban most of its uses this month — with some exceptions.

In this file photo from June 21, 2019, the sun peaks past almonds growing on the branches of an almond tree in Modesto, Calif. Chlorpyrifos is a pesticide used on more than 80 food crops, including oranges, berries, grapes, soybeans, almonds and walnuts, and has been linked to brain damage in children.

In this file photo from June 21, 2019, the sun peaks past almonds growing on the branches of an almond tree in Modesto, Calif. Chlorpyrifos is a pesticide used on more than 80 food crops, including oranges, berries, grapes, soybeans, almonds and walnuts, and has been linked to brain damage in children.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

The Oregon Department of Agriculture has prohibited most uses and the sale of a controversial pesticide beginning this month with some exceptions. The announcement comes three years after the state began phasing out the use of the chemical.

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For years environment and farmworker advocacy groups lobbied the state to ban the use of chlorpyrifos. That’s because government health agencies have found it to cause neurological damage — especially in children and people who are regularly exposed, such as farm workers.

The chemical has been widely used in homes and on farms to control insects on a wide variety of ornamental plants and food and feed crops. In Oregon, it’s been used on Christmas trees, alfalfa and some crop seeds.

In 2019 and 2020, advocacy groups worked with Oregon legislators to raise awareness about chlorpyrifos with a set of bills, though neither bill passed. However, the introduction of the two bills raised the level of concern so high that the state Agriculture Department initiated a rulemaking process, said Lisa Arkin, the executive director for the nonprofit Beyond Toxics and a member of the chlorpyrifos workgroup committee.

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Arkin said she’s glad the state followed through with its phase-out plan. But she disagrees with the exceptions the state left.

“We would have considered the ban the best solution for this particular highly dangerous chemical. And a ban was what was proposed by legislators when the bill was being considered in our state legislature,” Arkin said. “But in rulemaking, certain compromises were made.”

Under the state’s rule, all uses of the chemical are prohibited except when used for commercial pre-plant seed treatments, cattle ear tags and its granular form to control soil-borne pests.

“The department has not proposed a complete ban because these limited uses pose a lower risk to applicators, workers, bystanders, and the environment,” Andrea Cantu-Schomus, a spokesperson for ODA, said in a written statement. “In addition, there are currently few insecticides which control soil-dwelling pests as effectively as chlorpyrifos.”

Arkin said there’s a strong possibility the nonprofit will eventually push to eliminate the use of the chemical in seed treatments as well as its granular form.

“Especially the granular treatments to me are problematic,” Arkin said. “Oftentimes those applications are made in the spring when there might be insect pressure. But spring in Oregon is also the time when it rains. And so there’s a high likelihood that these grains of chlorpyrifos would run off into local ditches, irrigation pathways, streams and get into our waterways.”

Oregon joins a number of states that have restricted or prohibited the use of chlorpyrifos, including California, Hawaii and New York.

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