Lianne Sheppard was sitting in her office on a Friday afternoon when a colleague approached her with an old study on the safety of chlorpyrifos. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency had used the study to set a safety level for the exposure to the pesticide, which is widely used on fruits and vegetables. But when Sheppard, a professor and biostatistician at the University of Washington, looked at the original research that was the basis for the paper and the safety thresholds that were calculated from it, she realized that the underlying data didn’t support its conclusion.
“I tried to reproduce their analysis, and I couldn’t,” Sheppard said of the study, which was commissioned by Dow Chemical, the maker of chlorpyrifos, in the late 1960s. The research was conducted by an Albany Medical College professor named Frederick Coulston, who exposed 16 incarcerated men to the pesticide, dividing them into four groups — a low-, medium-, and high-dose group as well as a control — and recording their nervous system responses. The resulting paper, which was written by Dow statisticians based on Coulston’s data, concluded that at the highest dose the pesticide depressed the activity of cholinesterase, an enzyme necessary for neuromuscular function. Sheppard was able to confirm that finding. But while Dow concluded that the middle- and low-range doses had no effect, Sheppard found effects in both groups. She also saw how Dow had used the paper to help the EPA set an incorrect “no-effects level,” or NOEL, which is critical for calculating a safety threshold.
“I realized that in the middle-dose group, which is the one that mattered for the no-effects level, they had conveniently left out one of the two baseline measurement days,” said Sheppard. “The outrageous thing was that the group they declared as NOEL was only that because they left out data from their analysis.” In a peer-reviewed paper published in October 2020, Sheppard and her colleagues concluded that “the omission of valid data without justification was a form of data falsification.”
But by the time Sheppard had discovered the falsification, it was too late; the injustice of Dow’s experiment had already extended far beyond violating the human rights of incarcerated people. Coulston’s study was used for decades to set safety levels for chlorpyrifos that were higher than they otherwise would have been. Asked about the study, EPA spokesperson Kenneth Labbe responded in an email that the Coulston paper was not used in the most recent human health assessment of chlorpyrifos. But Sheppard pointed out that the research has been influential even after the EPA officially withdrew the study from consideration for ethical reasons in 2009 and noted that it continues to underly certain assumptions in chlorpyrifos regulation to this day.
Why didn’t the agency catch Dow’s falsification? “EPA didn’t scrutinize it at the level I did,” Sheppard said. “The science is hard. And once a study has been around, who goes back and looks after it’s been accepted for 10, 15, or 20 years?”
In an email, Kacey Birchmier, media relations manager for Corteva Agroscience, which now owns Dow, wrote that the company disagrees with the analysis and conclusions of Sheppard’s paper. “When used according to the label, chlorpyrifos is safe for all approved uses, as demonstrated by the more than 4,000 studies and reports examining the product in terms of health, safety and the environment,” Birchmier wrote.
On one level, the story of the Coultson paper is simple: Decades ago, a seemingly small omission happened to slip past regulators. And yet the consequences of that one statistical sleight of hand, and the government’s failure to notice it, are immense. Between 1992 and 2017, chlorpyrifos was one of the most heavily used pesticides in the U.S., with some 450 million pounds of it sprayed on crops. Countless children and pregnant people were exposed to what we now know were unsafe levels. And those exposures have since been found to increase the risk of a wide range of neurodevelopmental problems in children, including ADHD and other attention disorders, autism, tremors, and intelligence deficits, as well as memory and motor problems. Although the true toll of that brain damage is incalculable, pediatrician and environmental health researcher Leonardo Trasande estimates that exposure to organophosphate pesticides, the class to which chlorpyrifos belongs, caused children born in the U.S. in a single year — 2010 — to collectively lose 1.8 million IQ points, costing the country $44.7 billion in productivity, education, and health costs.
The Coulston study is just one of many instances in which an industry that is far more powerful and better resourced than the federal agency responsible for regulating it has hoodwinked, bullied, and persuaded the EPA into using inaccurate science at the expense of public health. And that influence over the research used to set the safe levels of pesticide exposure is just one of many tools that agrochemical companies like Dow have successfully wielded to increase and maintain the use of products even when they damage health and the environment.
Interviews with more than two dozen experts on pesticide regulation — including 14 who worked at the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, or OPP — described a federal environmental agency that is often unable to stand up to the intense pressures from powerful agrochemical companies, which spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying each year and employ many former EPA scientists once they leave the agency. The enormous corporate influence has weakened and, in some cases, shut down the meaningful regulation of pesticides in the U.S. and left the country’s residents exposed to levels of dangerous chemicals not tolerated in many other nations.
While it’s impossible to catalog all the ways in which the EPA has failed to protect the public from the harms of pesticides, this reporting has brought to light several instances in which the overlooking, burying, or scuttling of science has had direct consequences for human health. The alarming discoveries include an EPA report warning about the link between the pesticide glyphosate and cancer that never saw the light of day; the failure to consider evidence that a neonicotinoid pesticide causes brain damage; the refusal to investigate evidence that another pesticide that is an ingredient in Roundup may cause cancer; the dismissal of science showing that the widely used pesticide malathion causes cancer; and the agency’s waiving of the vast majority of toxicity tests at the request of industry.
The scientists who have identified these hazards described immense pressure from within the agency to overlook the risks they found. And several said they faced retribution for calling attention to the dangers of pesticides. “If you bring something up that’s an inconvenient truth, you get circumvented for any kind of committee work that you would need to have to get a promotion,” one toxicologist who used to work for the agency’s pesticide office told The Intercept. “It is the unwritten rule that to get promotions, all pesticides need to pass.”
Sometimes the urgency to approve pesticides comes from members of Congress, according to one EPA scientist. Within the pesticide office, staff refer to such cases as “yes packages,” said the scientist, who encountered the term on several occasions in which elected officials reached out to the EPA on behalf of companies whose pesticides were under review. “The companies will contact their local congressman or senator, and then we get what we call a congressional inquiry where they’ll contact our office directly and say, ‘Why is this taking so long?'”
“If you bring something up that’s an inconvenient truth, you get circumvented for any kind of committee work that you would need to have to get a promotion.”
In these cases, the scientist said, managers in the office sometimes urge assessors to approve the pesticide quickly even if they don’t have enough information to ensure their safety. “The science isn’t there, they’re missing some studies that we’re requiring, but management will kind of like throw their hands and say, ‘No, it’s fine. Just make it fit in the guidelines,’” the scientist said, going on to describe the first time they encountered the term. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And then we had an internal meeting in which they explained, ‘Oh, it’s a yes package.’”
The scientist described one particular internal meeting in 2015 over a “yes package” — the approval of a pesticide to treat the papaya ringspot virus, which was decimating the papaya crop in Hawaii. Even though the company hadn’t conducted any studies of its safety, managers insisted that the scientists sign off on a decision to approve it. “The rest of us are sitting around thinking, ‘OK, you hire the scientists to do the work, and now you’re telling us as regulatory people to make it fit?’” the scientist recalled. “‘We’re flat out telling you that’s not OK.’” Although the company never submitted data, the pesticide was approved.
Presented with some of the reporting in this article, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., expressed dismay. “These findings are profoundly alarming and point to a troubling pattern of disregard at the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs,” Blumenthal wrote in an email to The Intercept. “It is utterly unacceptable that scientists’ concerns about potentially dangerous pesticides would be dismissed, and that scientists and whistleblowers would face retaliation. The pesticide industry has brazenly exploited loopholes in federal law for years and strong safeguards are needed to protect the public and our environment from harmful and sometimes lethal pesticide exposure. I will be pushing for these safeguards, continuing my call to ban toxic pesticides like chlorpyrifos, and working to ensure that the EPA’s mission to protect the public from the risks of pesticides is fulfilled.”
In response to questions about this article, EPA spokesperson Kenneth Labbe wrote in an email, “The agency is committed to ensuring our pesticide registration decisions are free from interference and that the agency’s scientific integrity policy, which is a bedrock principle for the Biden-Harris Administration, is upheld. EPA is home to world-class scientists. As it has in the past, the agency will continue to ensure their voices and the role of science will guide its decisions going forward. EPA relies on the best science available and evaluates information from multiple sources — pesticide companies, other governments, academia, and the published scientific literature — in its science evaluation process. Under Administrator Regan’s leadership, EPA has a renewed commitment to protecting human health and the environment by making evidence-based decisions that rely on the input of career scientists.”
Labbe also offered reassurance about the agency’s actions on chlorpyrifos. “Should robust scientific data demonstrate that EPA-registered uses of chlorpyrifos are posing risks of concern to the environment or human health, the agency will take appropriate action,” he wrote. “EPA’s decisions for chlorpyrifos will be a transparent process driven by science and the rule of law, ensuring concerns raised regarding farmworker and children’s safety will be fully addressed.”
The EPA was established in 1970 in large part because of concerns about pesticides and in small part because of a retired banker and bird enthusiast named Charles Broley. Broley tracked hundreds of bald eagles in Florida in the 1940s, banding the young birds in their nests before they flew northward. In 1947, he began to notice a steep decline in bald eagle numbers, as Rachel Carson recounted in her classic book “Silent Spring.” Between 1952 and 1957, when the pesticide DDT was sprayed to kill mosquitos in the waterways where the eagles fed, about 80 percent of their nests failed to produce any young, according to his tally.
Broley died two years after that count — too soon to see the role his careful study would play in the future of environmental protection. But there’s little question that his observation and Carson’s artful description of the toll of DDT and other pesticides on the eagles, finches, hedge sparrows, linnets, red-winged blackbirds, and “the fulvous tree duck, a tawny-colored, gooselike duck of the Gulf Coast” forever changed the public’s view of pesticides. She made it irrefutably clear that chemicals that had been sold as a solution to insects and other “pests” were also killing many other species, including the bird that served as the national symbol of the United States.
As a freelance writer and employee of the Bureau of Fisheries, Carson had previously focused on the wonders of the sea. But “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, was shot through with outrage at the pesticide companies that were blithely devastating the natural world. She noted a grim pattern: After one toxic pesticide was targeted because of health concerns, it was often replaced by another pesticide that caused similar problems. DDT itself was introduced as a replacement for the pesticide lead arsenate, which was abandoned because it left lead residue on fruit. Carson clearly recognized the folly of presenting organic phosphorus compounds — the class that contains chlorpyrifos, which we now recognize as organophosphates — as a safe solution to DDT, since these replacements harmed the nervous systems of all creatures, including birds.
“Who has decided — who has the right to decide — for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?” she asked. Two years later, Carson herself died of cancer — too soon for her to know how much her book helped bring about a bipartisan consensus that the public, through government, has the right to protect nature and restrict the use of dangerous pesticides that were harming it.
Pesticide companies attacked Carson and her work. Monsanto magazine published a nasty takedown of “Silent Spring” that both parodied the book and painted a future without pesticides, in which insects take over the Earth. Others questioned her sanity. But Carson’s warnings won the day: Eight years after the publication of “Silent Spring,” President Richard Nixon launched the EPA, using military language to describe its mission — to fight a “war on pollution.” William Ruckelshaus, the lawyer he appointed as the EPA’s first administrator, seemed similarly resolved, vowing that the new agency would have “no obligation to promote commerce or agriculture.” That pointed remark was no doubt a reference to the agricultural lobby that had been intimately involved in the handling of pesticides up to that point, which had been overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1972, that responsibility was officially transferred to the EPA in the hopes of lessening the influence of farmers and pesticide makers over the regulatory process.
The young agency got off to a promising start in standing up to corporate influence. In its first decade, the EPA canceled the registration of 12 pesticides, including DDT, aldrin, and dieldrin, which Carson had written about at length. In those early years, the regulatory agency had the power to inspire fear in chemical companies, as was clear from internal documents about the pesticide paraquat. News that the EPA was considering banning the pesticide because there was no known antidote to paraquat poisoning sent executives at Imperial Chemical Industries, which made it, scurrying in search of some evidence of its safety.
But the pace at which the EPA removed pesticides from the market soon slowed. In the 1980s, the EPA canceled the registrations of eight pesticides. In the more than five decades since its founding, the agency has canceled only 37 pesticides. (The EPA said that it has canceled 40 “pesticide products.”) Between 2000 and 2010, the EPA forced a mere four pesticides off the market, and in the past decade, only one. Meanwhile, agrochemical companies have introduced thousands of pesticides. The EPA now manages more than 16,800 pesticide products and 1,200 active ingredients.
As the number of pesticides in use was exploding, knowledge of their harms was also increasing, with pesticides being linked to a wide range of human health harms. Beyond the brain damage in children wrought by chlorpyrifos, the chemicals have been linked to various cancers, such as leukemia, brain cancer, breast cancer, and testicular cancer; liver, kidney, and lung damage; reproductive harms, including decreased fertility, spontaneous abortions, stillbirth, birth defects, premature birth, and low birth weight; deaths by poisoning; Parkinson’s disease; Alzheimer’s disease; kidney disease; heart disease; autoimmune conditions; and respiratory problems.
Photos: Dick Biggins/USFWS, Kim Mitchell/USFWS
We understand more, too, about how the chemicals are leading to the declines of species they’re not supposed to affect. Pesticides are listed as an issue to be addressed in the recovery plan of 186 endangered species, including the trispot darter, the black warrior waterdog, the Texas hornshell, and the rusty patched bumble bee, whose drastic population decline has been tied partially to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. The “neonics,” a class chemically related to nicotine, slow the learning process in bees and impact their ability to forage and fly long distances. Exposed to the same pesticides, songbirds lose weight and migrate later, which lessens their chances of reproducing, and deer have malformed jaws and reduced lifespans.
For those bald eagles that Broley was tracking in Florida, and for other bird species, too, we now know that DDT was weakening their eggshells, which meant that some birds that were sitting on the eggs to warm them wound up crushing their young instead. Some pesticides cause fish to abandon their nests and broods; others lower resistance to disease and reduce avoidance of predators. And, not surprisingly, many of the chemicals designed to kill bugs, weeds, fungi, and other “pests” harm both humans and other animal species.
The growing evidence of the dangers of these compounds has led the governments of other major agricultural economies to remove some of the chemicals from use. The U.S., once the beacon of hope for pesticide regulation, now lags behind. In 2016, the U.S. used 322 million pounds of pesticides that were banned elsewhere, according to a 2019 study by Nathan Donley, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. Donley said that most of these chemicals had been banned for health and environmental reasons. At least 85 pesticides banned in China, Brazil, or the European Union were still used in the U.S. in 2016, he said, a number that has almost certainly increased since then.
Some of pesticide companies’ success in the U.S. can be attributed to their extraordinarily aggressive approach to dealing with regulators. Monsanto, maker of Roundup and other products that contain the weed killer glyphosate, summed up the company’s commitment to pushing past regulatory limits with the phrase “freedom to operate.” As internal documents released through litigation made clear, Monsanto, which was bought by Bayer in 2018, saw its “freedom to operate” as encompassing ghostwriting purportedly independent scientific papers, cozying up to regulators, and attempting to discredit journalists who exposed the dangers of Monsanto’s products.
Asked about the “freedom to operate,” Kyel Richard, a senior external communications manager for Bayer U.S. Crop Science, responded in an email, “Like many companies and organizations operating in highly regulated industries, we provide information and contribute to science-based policymaking and regulatory processes. Our engagements with all those in the public sector are routine, professional, and consistent with all laws and regulations.”
But Monsanto wasn’t alone in encouraging employees to aggressively push against regulatory barriers, according to Charles Benbrook, a veteran agricultural economist who has spent years poring over internal documents on pesticides as an expert witness in the litigation with Monsanto and Bayer over Roundup, as well as in two cases against Dow and Corteva over chlorpyrifos. Benbrook is also scheduled to be an expert witness in litigation over the herbicide paraquat, made by Syngenta.
“The regulatory affairs staff of all of these major chemical companies have a very clear job: to propose and gain approval of registrations that expand the ways and places and times that the company’s products can be used and to keep all existing registrations fully in place and resist any changes in labels — whether it be application rate, or a limit on timing, or a warning on the label about some health hazard — that might cost them a percent or two in market share,” said Benbrook. “The regulatory affairs departments of these companies actually compete against each other and sometimes brag that they were able to keep one of their high-risk pesticides on the market longer than some other company that threw in the towel prematurely.”
Benbrook described tireless corporate campaigns to portray pesticides as harmless even as independent research showed otherwise. “The companies constantly regurgitate their own spin on the science. And they refer to papers that they get into the journals that have been either commissioned or partially or wholly ghostwritten,” said Benbrook. For glyphosate, which has been under scrutiny for its cancer-causing potential at the EPA since at least 1983, the goal wasn’t just to discredit any scientific evidence that the chemical posed harm, but also to get “people to get up and shout Glyphosate is Non-toxic,” as one 1999 email made clear.
One of the ways that agrochemical companies convince EPA scientists to get up and shout about their products — or more subtly gain their sympathies — is by inviting them to visit farms. EPA scientists traveled to a tour of a New Jersey farm by bus, and once there, they were served a simple supper of barbecue and corn on paper plates. “It felt fancy in comparison to what we’re accustomed to in government,” said one former staff scientist in the pesticide office, who attended the junket and found it surprisingly affecting.
“It was subtle, but it did change the way I think,” said the scientist, who asked not to be named to avoid professional reprisals. It wasn’t just chatting with a corporate scientist who was seeking approval of the very pesticide the EPA staffer was then reviewing while the two waited in the buffet line or hearing farmers talk about the economic threats posed by weeds. It was the cumulative effect of spending time with these people outside the office.
“It felt kind of brain-washy,” they said. “By the end, I thought, ‘You really do need these chemicals, otherwise you’ll have crop failure.’”
While costing the companies and trade groups just a few hundred dollars per participant, such tours, which OPP staff can attend on work time, are clearly valuable to the agrochemical industry. Among the organizations that hosted recent junkets are the Weed Science Society of America, which sponsors a crop tour in Kansas featuring a session on 2,4-D and dicamba tolerant crop technologies, and the National Potato Council, which advocates for the use of various pesticides, including chlorpyrifos, and holds a summer tour in Idaho that features a side trip to Yellowstone Bear World. The Fertilizer Institute, the National Agricultural Aviation Association, and the Association of Equipment Manufacturers also sponsor events and trips for EPA scientists. And agency staff attended an event at Chesapeake Farms in Maryland; two of the farmers on the “Ask a Farmer” panel at that event also work for Pioneer, a seed company, which makes pesticides that are registered by the agency.
“When you come into the lobby, many times there’s a chemical or ag lobbyist there. They just bop in.”
When asked if there is a limit to the amount that sponsoring companies can spend on farm tours or on how much work time EPA staff can spend on them, Labbe wrote that “EPA abides by all ethics statutes and maintains a culture of the highest ethical conduct with the amount of money sponsoring groups can spend on activities that EPA staff attend. Staff participation in crop tours have provided an increase in awareness and more educated discussions on the subject at hand such as farmworker issues.”
The pesticide industry also has an outsize presence within the agency. The representatives of the companies are usually, though not always, friendly and eager to help, according to several scientists who have worked at the agency’s pesticide office.
“When you come into the lobby, many times there’s a chemical or ag lobbyist there. They just bop in,” said Karen McCormack, a scientist who retired from the EPA in 2017 after working on pesticides for 40 years. “They want to be your friend. They always compliment you. But if you don’t do what they want, they’ll go to your boss or above your boss and say, ‘We can’t work with you anymore.’ And you’ll be taken off the project and put on something that’s meaningless. I’ve seen it happen a number of times.”
That was the experience of one former pesticide assessor who expressed concern about the dangers presented by a pesticide product that contained the chemical bifenthrin, which was submitted to the agency for approval by Vive Crop Protection. An insecticide used to kill ants and mosquitoes in more than 600 products in the U.S., bifenthrin caused “a significantly higher incidence” of lung cancers, as well as liver and bladder tumors, when it was given to lab animals orally, according to the assessor. This finding, along with the fact that it is a pyrethroid, a class of pesticides that are more toxic when inhaled as opposed to ingested — some as much as 100 times more so — should have led to extensive inhalation toxicity testing when it came before the pesticide program’s Hazard and Science Policy Committee in 2012, the scientist said.
But the EPA waived the requirement for extensive inhalation toxicity testing of bifenthrin. The EPA’s Labbe acknowledged that staffers waived the requirement for a longer study but said that the agency reviewed and incorporated a 28-day study supplied by the chemical’s manufacturer into the human health risk assessment for bifenthrin. According to the assessor, the industry study was not nearly long enough to assess lung cancer formation. “You need a study of at least a year and a half,” they said. “Often, in cancer studies, the first tumors show up after 12 months.” Labbe also said that evidence that bifenthrin causes cancer was reviewed — and dismissed. “The Cancer Peer Review Committee (CPRC) did note a higher incidence of lung tumors in female mice in some dose groups in the oral carcinogenicity study; however, there was no significant dose-related trend for these tumors,” Labbe wrote.
In any case, bifenthrin was not the only pesticide that dodged testing to see if it presented dangers. The EPA’s pesticide office granted 972 industry requests to waive toxicity tests between December 2011 and May 2018, 89 percent of all requests made. Among the tests on pesticides that were never performed were 90 percent of tests looking for developmental neurotoxicity, 92 percent of chronic cancer studies, and 97 percent of studies looking at how pesticides harm the immune system.
By law, the companies that submit their products for review pay for these tests, and in a presentation about the waivers last year, Anna Lowit, a senior science adviser in the office, emphasized the savings to these companies: more than $300 million. Lowit also noted that animal lives were saved — a goal that the Trump administration and the chemical industry prioritized within the agency. The EPA developed the guidelines for waiving the tests along with BASF, Corteva, and Syngenta, pesticide manufacturers that all stand to benefit significantly from having their products bypass toxicity testing.
There is no replacement for these waived experiments, according to pediatrician and epidemiologist Philip Landrigan. “There is no other way to know if a chemical is toxic but to test it,” said Landrigan, who co-authored a landmark report on children’s particular vulnerability to pesticides. “If they allow chemicals to come onto the market and to be used widely in the environment and put on food crops without testing them for toxicity, then EPA is clearly not fulfilling its mandate to protect human health.”
Although the toxicity studies were designed to protect health, a core part of the agency’s mission, the leadership of the office of pesticides appeared pleased to have waived them. On September 20, 2018, managers in the office gathered in one of the agency’s conference rooms to celebrate what many people concerned about exposure to pesticides would consider a grim landmark: having waived 1,000 toxicity tests. “There will be cake,” an emailed invitation promised.
“Morale has been bad, and it’s getting steadily worse over the years.”
After trying, and failing, to protect human health by calling attention to the tumors caused by bifenthrin, the EPA pesticide assessor had several requests to be appointed to relevant committees denied, a development they felt was retaliation for raising concerns about the pesticide. Several other EPA scientists who worked on pesticides spoke of being passed over for positions on committees, which are necessary for professional advancement, after they attempted to call attention to evidence of hazards presented by the chemicals.
Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an organization that represents whistleblowers at public agencies on issues of environmental ethics and scientific integrity, said that the group has recently received several similar reports from people working within the EPA’s pesticide division. “Current and former employees have been reaching out to us in increasing numbers and expressing concerns about the office culture at OPP and the fact that if scientists speak out about their concerns, they will not last long in that division,” said Whitehouse, who described the working conditions in the division of the EPA as very difficult. “Morale has been bad, and it’s getting steadily worse over the years.”
While the agency scientist felt that their career suffered, others saw theirs advance. Jim Jones was head of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, which includes the pesticide office, when concerns about the pyrethroids were raised — and their toxicity tests waived. He went on to join the board of directors of Vive Crop Protection, the company that made the bifenthrin-containing product, after leaving the agency in 2017.
Jones also became an executive vice president at the Household and Commercial Products Association in 2017. In the organization’s annual report, Jones is quoted as saying that “one of the strengths of HCPA is its strong and mutually respectful relationship with the EPA that continues to give members direct access to officials at every pertinent level of the agency.”
Jones, who is no longer affiliated with either company, said he never spoke with anyone at the EPA about bifenthrin after leaving the agency. In 2020, he started his own consulting company, which represents a range of clients, including private companies, environmental groups, and trade associations.
Jones is far from the only high-ranking EPA official who went from regulating pesticides to doing work for the companies that make them. The tradition of leaving the agency for a lucrative job in the industry overseen by it began with Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s very first administrator. Widely admired and hailed for his commitment to the environment, Ruckelshaus left the EPA in 1973 (in Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre”) to work for the timber and paper company Weyerhauser and was later hired by the American Paper Institute, Monsanto, and the waste management company Browning-Ferris Industries.
The path from the EPA’s pesticide office to working in the pesticide industry is particularly well trodden. Since 1974, all seven of the office’s directors who continued to work after leaving the agency went on to make money from the pesticide companies they used to regulate, according to an analysis by The Intercept. (The two other former directors who left the agency went directly into retirement.) Most, like Jones, used their intimate knowledge of the regulatory process to help companies navigate it. Former Directors Marcia Mulkey, Dan Barolo, and Steve Schatzow went on to work as attorneys for the industry. In addition to consulting for industry, former Director Steve Bradbury is now a professor at Iowa State University, where his work is funded by Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, among others. And Debra Edwards, who served as director of pesticide programs from 2007 to 2010, later joined the board of the agrochemical company American Vanguard.
Many other EPA officials have left the agency to work for the agrochemical industry. Stephen Johnson, who served as assistant administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, as well as EPA administrator, later joined the board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, which markets the pesticide glyphosate in the U.S. Linda Fisher served as assistant EPA administrator before going on to work for Monsanto and DuPont. John Todhunter, an assistant EPA administrator in charge of pesticides, went on to become a pesticide consultant. Bill Jordan served as deputy director of the pesticide office until 2015 and is now a consultant to pesticide companies. Steven Jellineck, a former assistant administrator for toxic substances, founded a consulting firm that would eventually employ many other former employees of the pesticide office and represented Monsanto, Dow, FMC, and the Chemical Manufacturers Association, among other agrochemical companies.
The problem with this continuous flow of experts from the government to pesticide companies — and sometimes back again — isn’t just that it can enable dangerous chemicals to evade regulatory scrutiny but that it also shapes the culture within the agency. “Management officials graduate and move to direct hires with the registrants,” said Bill Hirzy, a 27-year veteran of EPA. “So these management officials are loathe to take any action that is likely to limit their post-EPA employment opportunities.”
The long, intertwined histories of chemical companies and the EPA’s pesticide office help explain why the problems of regulation have persisted through the changes in presidential administrations — and continue even as the Biden administration vows to address the EPA’s scientific integrity problems.
“The Office of Pesticide Programs was about 20 percent worse under Trump, maybe 25,” said Lori Ann Burd, who directs the environmental health program at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s not like the 360 they did on climate change. They didn’t need to change that much to meet the Trump administration’s agenda.” Burd said that she has noticed only minor changes in the agency’s approach to pesticides under President Joe Biden. “They’re taking a slightly different tone. But in our litigation, it’s the same brass knuckles, fight to the death over everything.”
“FIFRA is encoded to approve pesticides.”
Part of the problem is that the main law that applies to pesticide oversight, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, which originally passed in 1947, wasn’t designed to protect health or the environment. “FIFRA is encoded to approve pesticides,” said Scott Faber, who leads the Environmental Working Group’s government affairs efforts. “There have been many changes to try to bolt on provisions that ensure that pesticides don’t pose an unreasonable risk to the environment. But the law is ultimately still designed to protect farmers and encourage pesticide companies to bring new products to the market.”
According to the federal statute, the EPA can only refuse to reregister a pesticide if the risks it poses to human health, wildlife, and the environment are greater than the benefits it provides, which are measured in terms of crop yield and quality. So even if a pesticide presents a clear danger, the agency often finds that the danger is outweighed by whatever economic advantages it offers.
“If EPA finds risk, it will look at benefits to growers,” said Patti Goldman, an attorney with Earthjustice. Goldman also said that the EPA finds ways to balance out almost any risk it identifies in an effort to avoid pulling pesticides from the market. “You get to the end, and EPA says the company is willing to use a little less, or use it a little less often, or they’ll put a little bit of a buffer around schools, or require some protective clothing, and then they’ll just say we find the risk is less than the benefits,” said Goldman. “It’s unprincipled.”
The law does require that pesticides not cause “unreasonable adverse effects” to the environment, but that vague endpoint is left to the interpretation of EPA officials, who are in frequent contact with representatives of the companies that make pesticides, who supply them with data and income in the form of registration fees.
This heavy reliance on the powerful industry it regulates leaves the EPA unable to objectively judge the chemicals’ effects, according to Burd. “The bottom-line standard in FIFRA — having an unreasonable adverse effect — that’s a judgment call. And who makes that judgment call? People who call the pesticide industry their ‘client,’” said Burd. As a lawyer whose job involves surveying the impact of pesticides on both wildlife and humans, she feels that the EPA’s pesticide office has consistently abused its legal leeway to weigh in on the side of the chemicals. “As far as this office goes, extinction is not unreasonable, mass poisonings are not unreasonable, and pollinator population collapses are not unreasonable.”
Although the law does require data as part of applications to register or reregister pesticides, companies are allowed to supply their own data, and the government often does not have the resources to verify the submissions. The EPA is supposed to review the studies pesticide manufacturers supply, but from the beginning it has struggled to keep up with the volume of the corporate science. When the EPA took over the regulation of pesticides, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent tens of thousands of studies over in boxes.
“There were piles and piles of them,” said McCormack, who joined an overwhelmed staff when she arrived to work in the pesticide office in 1976. The EPA had recently received the safety data for more than 30,000 pesticide products. “Boxes were everywhere. Some of the studies were missing, some were illegible,” she said. “It was a huge mess.”
In part because of the data overload, Congress decided in 1978 to change the requirements so that companies would only have to test “active ingredients” in pesticide products. All others would be considered “inert” and exempt from testing. From that point on, pesticide makers would also have the option of registering their products “conditionally,” which allows them to sell the chemicals without providing complete safety data to regulators. Since then, thousands of pesticides have entered the market through this loophole. According to the EPA’s Labbe, the agency has taken steps to improve the accuracy of information and internal tracking of conditional registration decisions, as well as to promote consistency, enhance transparency, and improve understanding of decision-making under FIFRA.
But as new pesticides continued to enter the market, the EPA never caught up with industry. “The agency didn’t have the capability with the resources and staffing that Congress gave them,” said Colleen Lanier-Christensen, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University who is studying the EPA. “The expectations were unrealistic. They didn’t have sufficient expertise. There were technical problems.”
In the early 1980s, Congress held hearings on the difficulties of regulating pesticides. One of the upshots was that the EPA was made to go through the registrations of every pesticide that had been approved before 1984. But the mandate didn’t come with additional resources. In fact, the agency’s budget shrank dramatically during that time. So while the pesticide office did eventually review the data and previous risk assessments for the pesticides that had been approved before 1984, it took more than 30 years, and since then, thousands more pesticides have been approved.
“There aren’t enough resources to go through all the studies. And there isn’t enough time,” said McCormack. Because it doesn’t have adequate staff to do the work itself, the pesticide office uses contractors to do an initial review of the science. “What happens then is that people at EPA look at what the contractors said and decide whether to accept it or not,” said McCormack. “For the most part, they just accept it.”
Even when an agency scientist does catch a problem with the industry studies, it is sometimes impossible to correct it. That was the case for an EPA toxicologist who was asked in the summer of 2018 to review the toxicity of a pesticide called pelargonic acid. The toxicologist looked at the previous reviews of the chemical going back to 1997, which had found that it posed no health threat. In an effort to be thorough, the scientist decided to look up the archived raw data on which those reports were based and found that several mice had developed leukemia and lymphoma after the chemical was applied to their skin.
“The reviews said there was no chronic toxicity, but when I looked at the actual study, it was clearly the opposite,” the toxicologist told The Intercept. The next logical step, the federal scientist assumed, was to ask the Cancer Assessment Review Committee to reassess the chemical. And when the EPA staffer spoke to several colleagues and managers individually about the situation and showed them the study, each agreed without hesitation that there was cause for concern and that it should be reassessed by the cancer committee.
But a group of managers in the pesticide office did not agree and were especially resistant, the scientist believes, because of the role of pelargonic acid, which, in addition to being used as a weed killer on its own, is one of the “co-formulants” in Roundup.
“When I finally mentioned the connection with glyphosate, all of a sudden everyone pulled back,” the toxicologist said.
The toxicologist feared that because there was data showing that both pelargonic acid and glyphosate could independently cause leukemias and lymphomas, together the compound could be particularly dangerous. They also feared that pelargonic acid might act as a “co-carcinogen” by facilitating the absorption of glyphosate into the skin of people who were exposed to it. A review by the cancer committee could help explain the years of research showing that weed killers that contain glyphosate are more likely to cause cell-cycle dysregulation, a hallmark of cancer, than glyphosate alone.
Pelargonic acid has still not been presented to the cancer review committee and remains in use both as a stand-alone pesticide and an ingredient in Roundup.
But the scientist said that managers in the pesticide office discouraged a reassessment of pelargonic acid from the cancer committee and made the process of requesting it difficult. After raising the concerns, the scientist reported facing increased scrutiny from their supervisor, being repeatedly threatened with disciplinary action, and being written up for failing to meet a deadline that was moved without their knowledge. The scientist subsequently left the division. Meanwhile, pelargonic acid has still not been presented to the cancer review committee and remains in use both as a stand-alone pesticide and an ingredient in Roundup.
Asked about pelargonic acid, the EPA’s Labbe responded that “EPA has concluded that there is no new information that would require pelargonic acid to be reassessed by the Cancer Assessment Review Committee.”
Presented with the account of the EPA toxicologist’s account of pelargonic acid, Bayer spokesperson Kyel Richard wrote, “All formulations of our Roundup brand herbicides have been comprehensively evaluated and approved by experts at regulatory authorities to ensure the products can be used safely according to the label instructions. As consumers ourselves, we welcome the independent and science-based regulatory processes in place that ensure the safe and effective use of our products.”
The glyphosate connection put the chemical, and the toxicologist, near the center of a controversy that has already brought unwelcome attention to the agency’s handling of pesticides. Due to documents released in litigation over whether Roundup and other glyphosate-containing weed killers cause cancer, the public has learned the role that EPA staff played in slowing an Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry study of the compound; that the agency had based its regulatory decisions about the herbicide almost exclusively on the manufacturer’s own science; and that the office had mysteriously switched glyphosate’s cancer classification in 1991 from having “suggestive evidence” of carcinogenic potential to its current status of having “no evidence” of carcinogenic potential.
Yet there is even more evidence that has not previously come to light that some at the EPA have been covering up science showing the cancer-causing potential of glyphosate. In the summer of 2016, the EPA’s Office of Research and Development produced an analysis of seven epidemiological studies that looked at the association between non-Hodgkin lymphoma and glyphosate, which was then the most widely used pesticide in the U.S. The internal report, which was marked “confidential,” found that the four highest-quality studies “all reported elevated risks of NHL associated with exposure to glyphosate even after controlling for other pesticide exposures” and concluded that the studies “provide suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential between glyphosate exposure and increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.”
“They only used the pieces of the meta-analysis that fit the conclusion they wanted to support.”
But the EPA never published this clear expression of concern. Instead, it subsequently released reports in 2016 and 2017 that clearly drew on the earlier document — several sections have identical wording — but reached the opposite conclusion: that glyphosate is “not a probable carcinogen.” The agency also declared that glyphosate is not a probable carcinogen in 2019 and again in 2020, when it reregistered the pesticide for another 15 years. Although its own scientists had found a link between glyphosate and cancer in studies of human populations in 2016 (and the World Health Organization had acknowledged the cancer link a year earlier), the EPA continues to allow the use of the pesticide with the assurance that there is “insufficient evidence to conclude that glyphosate plays a role in any human diseases” and that “there are no risks of concern to human health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label.”
According to the EPA’s Labbe, the unpublished report was used internally by staff scientists to discuss epidemiological studies before the completion of a paper that was presented to the agency’s external FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel. “Several iterations of text were prepared by different staff members during the process of drafting the Issue Paper to aid in discussions and the exchange of scientific opinions. As such, the document does not reflect subsequent staff discussions and revisions,” Labbe wrote. Labbe also emphasized that the studies that were assessed in the report were taken into consideration in the agency’s decision to classify glyphosate as “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
The cherry-picking of data from the buried report was particularly troubling to Genna Reed, a senior analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists who reviewed the report. “They only used the pieces of the meta-analysis that fit the conclusion they wanted to support,” said Reed, who added that the suppression of the damning conclusion reached in the 2016 report was part of a pattern. “There is clearly a need for more firewalls to prevent political interference with the science.”
In some other cases, concerns about the health hazards of pesticides do make it into the public record — and are still overlooked. This was the case for evidence that acetamiprid, one of the five neonic pesticides approved for use, harms the developing brain. Well known for devastating bees and other pollinators, there is also evidence linking neonics to brain damage in children, including autism-like symptoms, brain malformations, and memory problems. The EPA requires tests to screen for these problems. And the test of acetamiprid’s developmental neurotoxicity showed that the chemical affects rats’ developing brains, according to a 2007 memo written by an EPA statistician named James Nguyen.
According to Nguyen’s memo, Exponent, a company hired to analyze the data by the pesticide manufacturer Nippon Soda Company, misinterpreted the results of that testing, as did the EPA. Although some male rats exposed to a mid-level dose of the pesticide had an impaired startle reflex, which allows them to respond to sudden stimuli, Exponent had dismissed the effects. Nguyen characterized the company’s analysis as “the incorrect reporting of results.”
Although Nguyen recognized the error, the EPA did not reduce the official level at which acetamiprid is considered to have no effects from the one set by the industry’s interpretation of the data. Instead, without addressing the points he raised, the agency simply stapled Nguyen’s memo into the larger file on acetamiprid.
Meanwhile, there is other evidence that neonics can harm the developing brain, causing thinning in some areas and motor problems such as tremors and staggering, as well as delaying sexual development. Since there is neonic residue on foods that kids often eat (including 60 percent of nonorganic applesauce samples tested), there is reason to fear that the pesticide could now be causing brain damage in children.
Despite the evidence, scientists from Exponent, as well as Bayer and Syngenta — all companies that make neonics — have concluded that the insecticides don’t affect the developing brain. And the EPA seems to have largely agreed with their conclusion, having imposed only minimal restrictions on them and refusing to impose a “child safety factor,” which would require setting a more conservative exposure level.
While there are only a handful of studies looking at the neurotoxicity of neonics to humans — some of which show that high-level exposure to the pesticides can cause coma and convulsions — Landrigan, the pediatrician and epidemiologist, anticipates that there will soon be many more. “When I started out as a pediatrician in the late 1960s, the only toxicity of lead that we recognized at that time was coma and convulsions,” said Landrigan, whose work helped establish the now widely accepted fact that even low levels of lead damage children’s brains.
“I suspect they have something else in the pipeline we haven’t yet seen.”
“That same progression took place in the case of mercury, and the same progression took place in the case of chlorpyrifos, and I suspect it will take place with neonicotinoids if they stay on the market — that we’re going to find, with more and more study, more rigorous study designs, and more sensitive tests, that neonics are toxic to children, even down to very low levels,” said Landrigan. “Every single neurotoxin has behaved that way.”
Landrigan sees the chemical industry’s claims that neonics are a safe alternative to older pesticides such as chlorpyrifos as fitting into another broad pattern. “They’ll stand behind a pesticide until they develop the next one, and then they’ll suddenly say, ‘Aha, we have a safer successor,’” said Landrigan. “I suspect they have something else in the pipeline we haven’t yet seen that they’re working on as we speak and will roll it out when the neonics go down.”
The cycle of replacements is taking its toll on wildlife too. While the EPA touts the comeback of bald eagles as a success story, the birds are now being poisoned, and sometimes killed, by a new generation of rodenticides.
It’s darkly ironic that neonics have been presented as a safe alternative to chlorpyrifos and the other organophosphates, whose use skyrocketed because they were considered safe alternatives to DDT, which was itself introduced as a replacement for another dangerous pesticide. With the exception of DDT, all these chemicals remain on the market. In 2015, Bayer registered a new neonic alternative, flupyradifurone, which the company has promoted as having a “very promising” safety profile. Yet flupyradifurone, which was supposed to be “safer,” has already been found to harm bees.
Similarly, the use of paraquat has increased as an alternative to glyphosate as concerns about its association with cancer, and weeds resistant to it, have grown, even though exposure to paraquat has been associated with Parkinson’s disease since the 1980s. Despite mounting evidence of their harms, both pesticides remain on the market, and their manufacturers continue to push for their continued registration. In 2003, Syngenta, the maker of paraquat, identified the science connecting the pesticide to Parkinson’s as “a threat to Syngenta’s paraquat business objectives” and laid out a plan “to shift the focus of serious PD research to other environmental factors.” The company insists that paraquat is safe and effective.
The ongoing use of so many problematic chemicals suggests that the EPA may have taken the wrong lesson from Carson’s book, according to Lanier-Christensen, the historian studying the agency. “They took action on DDT. But if we look more broadly at the critique in ‘Silent Spring,’ it wasn’t really about DDT,” said Lanier-Christensen. “It was about a broader approach to using chemicals to replace other chemicals.”
Yet another chemical, malathion, was once held up as a safer alternative to DDT. One of the most widely used pesticides in the same class as chlorpyrifos in the U.S., it is sprayed to kill mosquitos and control weeds in landscaping and agriculture. But the EPA has possessed, and dismissed, evidence that malathion is dangerous to people for decades.
In February 2000, a working group at the EPA classified malathion as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” based on evidence that mice and rats exposed to it developed liver tumors. The designation would have required the agency to do a risk assessment that could have limited exposure to the chemical. But after it learned of the agency’s proposed classification, Cheminova, one of the manufacturers of the pesticide, hired a company to reinterpret the evidence and convened another meeting to discuss the carcinogenicity of malathion. Brian Dementi, a senior EPA toxicologist who was an expert on malathion and led the working group that supported its classification as a likely human carcinogen, was not invited, or even told about, this second meeting, at which the scientists paid to defend malathion suggested downgrading its status to “suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity,” a classification that doesn’t require a risk assessment.
Dementi wrote to Mike Leavitt and Stephen Johnson, then the EPA administrator and deputy administrator, respectively, laying out the evidence that malathion caused cancer and warning that if it was not classified as a likely human carcinogen, “public health will be endangered.” Dementi suggested that the pesticide “should be re-assessed by pathologists not in the employ of the registrant.” In another letter, Dementi said he felt compelled to call attention to the evidence suggesting that malathion caused leukemia and dissent from the EPA’s assessment of it. “In numerous places, for inexplicable reasons, this risk assessment sidesteps or down plays actual evidence of toxicity,” Dementi wrote in 2005. “My justification in setting forth these dissenting opinions resides with my sense of duty, and in the hope the risk assessment will be suitable to protect public health.” Later he wrote an additional letter to the EPA administrator, emphasizing that children were particularly susceptible to malathion.
Bill Hirzy, a scientist and an official in the union that represented Dementi, remembers the pressure to give malathion a pass as intense. “When malathion was up for reregistration, when the heads of the various divisions who were looking at health effects were sitting around the table and planning to address the issue, the science adviser poked his head in the door and said, ‘This is a big-ticket pesticide, and we don’t want to have any problems,’” he said.
Despite the concerns that Dementi raised, malathion was given the less-restrictive designation. Johnson, then the deputy administrator of the EPA, went on to become administrator of the agency and, in 2010, joined the board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, a company that sold malathion, among other pesticides. Since then, mounting evidence has linked the pesticide to numerous cancers, including thyroid cancer, prostate cancer, and breast cancer. In 2015, the WHO concluded that malathion is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” And in 2017, the EPA itself found that 97 percent of federally protected species are likely harmed by it. Nevertheless, malathion remains classified as only having “suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity.” Each year, about 1 million pounds of malathion are sprayed in the U.S.
Johnson did not respond to several requests for comment for this article. In response to questions about malathion, an EPA spokesperson wrote, “EPA is following the next steps in the registration review process for malathion in accordance with President Biden’s commitment to protect human health and the environment. Both the Proposed Interim Decision and Interim Decision for malathion are expected to be completed in 2022. EPA is currently working on a revised human health risk assessment, incorporating physiologically based pharmacokinetic (PBPK) data received earlier this year.”
In the most basic sense, the companies that make and sell dangerous pesticides have succeeded in dodging regulators and keeping their products on the market. But if they have been able to waive, bury, and ignore the science that points to those dangers, pesticide manufacturers have not been able to outrun the harms that this science highlighted. By suppressing research used for regulation, the industry has found itself engaged in a much bigger, much more public experiment, the consequences of which are playing out on a global scale — and in the U.S. courts.
As the data Coulston collected more than 50 years ago predicted it would, chlorpyrifos exposure did cause brain damage. Although Dow has agreed to stop making the pesticide and an April federal court ruling will most likely force the EPA to finally revoke its registration, the lawsuits against Dow and Corteva over brain damage from chlorpyrifos are on the rise. Attorney Stuart Calwell has filed six separate suits against Dow and Corteva over chlorpyrifos. Among his clients are the parents of Rafael Cerda Calderon, who was exposed to chlorpyrifos in utero, when his mother was packing citrus fruit and lettuce in a warehouse. Calderon, who is now 18, has been diagnosed with autism and ADHD and has difficulty speaking, bathing, and with other basic tasks of daily life.
Calwell, who said that the lifetime costs of care in such cases can range into the tens of millions of dollars, is now reviewing the records of another 50 potential plaintiffs. Meanwhile, Corteva is scheduled to enter settlement talks in another case on behalf of the daughter of a woman named Marisol Padilla, who was exposed to chlorpyrifos when she was pregnant in a rural community in Monterey, California, and whose daughter developed learning delays and disabilities.
Years after studies found that rates of Parkinson’s disease are measurably higher among people who have used paraquat, litigation against Syngenta, its manufacturer, is also increasing. More than 150 suits from around the country over Syngenta’s responsibility for causing the disease were recently consolidated into a case that is scheduled to be heard in federal court in the Southern District of Illinois.
The 2018 Roundup litigation shows that these cases may meaningfully cut into the companies’ massive profits from these pesticides. That year, a groundskeeper named Dewayne Johnson who used Roundup before developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma won a $298 million judgment against Bayer. Although the stunning verdict, which found that the company acted with “malice, oppression, and fraud,” was reduced to $20.5 million on appeal, there are now some 125,000 plaintiffs suing over glyphosate exposure, and Bayer has already agreed to pay $10.9 billion to settle three-quarters of them. The company’s stock price, which fell 45 percent after the litigation, has not fully recovered.
Some financial analysts are predicting that the chlorpyrifos suits may affect Dow and Corteva’s bottom line too. In May, Bank of America downgraded Corteva stock, citing “the legacy Dow insecticide chlorpyrifos” as its primary concern.
Meanwhile, science showing that some of the effects from pesticides are passed down through generations suggests that the litigation may continue for decades to come. Calwell’s team has documented evidence of the presence of chlorpyrifos and its breakdown products years after active spraying of the chemical had stopped, which may mean that litigation over chlorpyrifos continues long after the use of the pesticide has stopped.
Still, close watchers of the pesticide industry remain skeptical that the lawsuits will fundamentally change how pesticide companies operate. “Whatever it costs them in court is a calculated loss,” said Benbrook. “Even when they spend tens of millions, it is never going to be more than a share of their net profits.”
The inescapable problem is the financial mismatch between the underfunded government agency and the immense corporations that continue to outfox, outmaneuver, and vastly outspend it, according to Benbrook.
“I can guarantee that Monsanto spent more than the entire OPP budget on that litigation. It had to have been way more,” said Benbrook. “How can EPA fight these major chemical companies when they are willing to spend an amount of money that is roughly equivalent to the entire Office of Pesticide Programs annual budget to defend just one chemical?”