A pesticide linked to potentially irreversible neurological impairments in children had the highest readings of all the overused chemicals on the island, the authorities have confirmed.
The contentious insecticide, called chlorpyrifos, was thrust into the international spotlight in recent days after a group of eight US attorney generals last week won a last-ditch appeal to ban its use following growing public health concerns.
Chlorpyrifos, a pesticide used widely on food crops in Malta, has repeatedly been shown to negatively impact proper development and functioning of the central nervous system and brain following prenatal exposure.
In 2014, a pesticide awareness group conducted tests to establish whether residential proximity to the agricultural pesticide during pregnancy was associated with autism spectrum disorders or developmental delay. It found about one in three pregnant women who lived within 1.5 kilometres of a farm spraying the chemical had an increased risk of bearing a child with some form of autism or developmental disorder.
The Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority, responsible for local pesticide testing, told the Times of Malta the chemical had registered the highest readings of all the chemicals detected as being overused on produce on the Maltese market. Of 13 samples found to have excessive levels of the chemical, 12 were locally grown, it noted.
Of 13 samples with excessive levels of the chemical, 12 were locally grown
The chemical is legal and commonly used in the EU but has just been banned in a number of US states after they appealed to reverse a decision made by the Trump administration to clear it.
Chlorpyrifos has also been the subject of controversy in a number of EU member states in recent years.
Scientific studies have cautioned that, rather than resulting from eating produce covered in the pesticide, harm from its use mostly comes during the application process, where the sprayed residue can be caught in a breeze and travel considerable distances, covering residential areas.
Farmers said that with the appearance of new pests, they were resorting to applying much higher amounts of the chemical, and others, in a bid to save their crops.
Classified as an organophosphate, chlorpyrifos is available in Malta under a number of different brand names and comes mainly as a white, crystalline solid.
The other effects of overexposure can include changes in behaviour or sleeping patterns, mood changes and effects on the nervous system.
The Sunday Times of Malta reported that Maltese fruit and veg again failed the most pesticide tests in Europe, doubling the already worrying trend seen in previous years.
In addition, the sampling method employed by the authorities testing for chemicals in local and imported produce was deeply flawed in some instances, while other testing showed worrying overuse.
The MCCAA said its methodology was based on a risk assessment carried out by its officials. A refined testing process, introduced for the most recent checks, had shown improved results, it said.
The MCCAA inspectors looked for more than 700 types of pesticides and conducted tests for an average of 147 different chemicals in every piece of produce analysed.
What is chlorpyrifos?
The chemical was first introduced to homes and farm fields the world over in the mid-1960s as a highly-effective deterrent to most insects. Homeowners and farmers sprayed it, so did golf courses and hotels, and even local councils trying to keep weeds from growing where they were not wanted.
Studies starting shortly after the insecticide was introduced indicated that close proximity could be dangerous to human health. Home use of chlorpyrifos was banned in the United States in 2000, with Europe following suit eight years later. But it is still used by farmers on a wide range of crops.
Chlorpyrifos belongs to the same class of chemicals as the controversial biological weapon sarin gas – organophosphates. It is what it known as a nerve agent, attacking neural pathways and causing a breakdown in the ability of nerves to communicate.
The effects of the insecticide on animals and humans has been widely studied since the 1970s. Early studies showed chlorpyrifos affects living things to varying degrees: it’s highly toxic to birds and insects, including bees, quite toxic to fish and moderately toxic to humans. However, more recent studies of small children have found a link between it and lower IQ and developmental problems.
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