Chemical Roulette: EPA Investigates Pesticides . . . Slowly

Why is the EPA gambling with our health?

| February/March 2001

Under the law, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was to have finished a third of the job by August 1999, giving priority to the riskiest pesticides, including 45 organophosphates (OPs), highly effective poisons that kill by inhibiting an enzyme necessary for proper nervous system function. (Some of the more potent organophosphates were used as nerve gases in World War II.) But so far reviews have been finalized for only eight of the OPs; of these, seven have had their registrations canceled and their tolerances, or legal residue limits, revoked.

Reviews for the remaining 37 OPs are now stalled while the EPA figures out how to measure these pesticides' combined risk to human health (as required under the FQPA). Historically, the EPA has assessed each OP as a discrete poison; yet, as nerve agents, all OPs act similarly on the body and their effects are cumulative. Acute exposures can cause symptoms ranging from dizziness, vomiting and headaches to respiratory arrest, convulsions and death. Chronic low-dose exposures have been linked to nervous-system damage, learning disabilities, cancer, fertility problems and birth defects.

Despite the missed '99 deadline, Jack Housenger, associate director of the EPA's special review and reregistration division, insists the OP reassessments are on track. True, most have gone as far as they can go pending a means for calculating the dangers of combined exposures (the EPA has pledged to have a formula in place before this summer). Meanwhile, the discrete, or individual, risk assessments have been updated for nearly all of the organophosphates, and interim decisions reauthorizing, amending or canceling existing uses have been issued for more than a dozen. But even as the agency trumpets its midstream reductions of these controversial pesticides, critics contend the restrictions don't go nearly far enough.

Cozy with Industry

Last summer, when the EPA announced a ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos (trade name Dursban) for most home and garden uses it seemed a triumph for public health advocates, who had long questioned the safety of this most widely used organophos phate. Upon closer inspection, however, the decision turns out to be a qualified win at best. Chlorpyrifos — a poison that in animal studies has proven hazardous to developing brains and nervous systems — will still be used agriculturally, though not on the too permeable tomato. Some 13 million pounds will continue to be applied annually to corn, grain, fruits, nuts and vegetables. The decision also tem porarily retains Dursban as a termite con trol, allowing spot and local treatments of postconstruction lumber through 2002 and of preconstruction materials through 2005. Use on golf courses and for mosquito sprayings will continue indefinitely. Indeed, Housenger admits an all-out ban is unlikely.

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides/National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental consortium, counters that anything short of a cancellation is unacceptable. "Our position is that the public should not be exposed to neurotoxic pesticides," says Feldman, who faults the EPA for "regulating by negotiation" with the chemical industry — striking deals that put company profit above public safety. He points specifically to chlorpyrifos, and charges that the EPA worked with Dow Agrosciences, the makers of Dursban, to determine which uses would stay and which would go.

Housenger confirms that the chlorpyrifos restrictions were hammered out in meetings with Dow, but maintains such negotiations serve the public good by preventing lengthy litigation and by speeding removal of dangerous products from the market.

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