(Beyond Pesticides, July 15, 2008) After three years of deliberation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new rules for five highly toxic fumigant pesticides on July 10, 2008. Environmental health, community and farmworker groups say the rules, while substantially better than the past, still fall short of protecting people, workers and the environment. The rules will be published in the Federal Register on July 17, 2008.The fumigant review, mandated by the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, was conducted as a combined evaluation of five commonly used fumigants, called the “Fumigant Cluster Assessment.” The five fumigants included in the assessment are methyl bromide, metam sodium, metam potassium, dazomet, and chloropicrin. Methyl bromide was slated for phaseout by January 2005 under the Montreal Protocol because it is a potent ozone depletor, but the Bush Administration has sought annual “critical use exemptions,” keeping it on the market.
Fumigants, which are among the most toxic chemicals used in agriculture, are gases or liquids that are injected or dripped into the soil to sterilize a field before planting. Even with plastic tarps on the soil, fumigants escape from the soil and drift through the air into schools, homes, parks and playgrounds. Strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, carrots and potatoes are some of the major crops for which fumigant use is high.“So many people, including my family and friends, have been poisoned by these pesticides. I was hoping EPA would do more to protect farmworkers and rural communities,” says Teresa DeAnda, a resident of Earlimart, CA from Californians for Pesticide Reform.
Rural communities, farmworkers and environmentalists had hoped that EPA would use this opportunity to help move American agriculture to safe, secure and sustainable pest management technologies, and completely phase out the use of these outdated pesticides. “Fumigants such as methyl bromide should not be used under any circumstances,” says Shelley Davis deputy director of Farmworker Justice and Beyond Pesticides board member. “This product has been linked to high risk of birth defects and nervous system damage.”
While EPA did not ban the use of any of the fumigants reviewed, the most significant mitigation measure is the introduction of buffer zones, meaning farmers must leave from 25 feet to half a mile between the fumigated field and homes, schools, and other places where people might be. The buffer zones are an improvement over current use patterns that — except for Telone, another fumigant — require no buffer zones to protect people. However, the sizes of EPA’s buffers are “scenario based” and, under certain conditions, can be waived. Thus the protection of EPA’s new buffer zones may be too little to prevent acute poisonings. In September 2007, 121 workers in Nevada more than ¼ mile from a fumigation site were rushed to the hospital because of fumigant drift. Lesser drift incidents often go unnoticed because people don’t know why they are feeling sick.
Other mitigation measures include:
- Posting requirements: signs must include a “do not walk” symbol, date and time of the fumigation, date and time the buffer restrictions expire, fumigant product name, and contact information for the fumigator.
- Agricultural worker protections: workers who cut open tarps after fumigation will now be considered “handlers” and required to wear protective breathing masks; reentry intervals will be extended (but vary based on application); and, air monitoring will be required to determine if respirator action levels have been reached.
- Applicator and handler training programs: requiring fumigant registrants (pesticide manufacturers) to develop and implement training programs for applicators in charge of soil fumigations.
- Good agricultural practices: require, rather than recommend practices that help reduce off gassing.
- Application method, practice, and rate restrictions: restricting certain fumigant application methods and practices for which data are not currently available to determine appropriate protections, or that lead to risks that are otherwise difficult to address.
- Restricted use pesticide classification: all metam sodium/potassium and dazomet products will now be restricted use.
- Site-specific fumigant management plans: requiring that fumigant users prepare a written, site-specific fumigant management plan before fumigation.
- Emergency preparedness and response requirements: requiring registrants to provide, through their community outreach programs, training and information to first responders in high fumigant use areas and areas with significant interface between communities and fumigated fields.
- Notice to state and tribal lead agencies: fumigators must notify State and Tribal Lead Agencies for pesticide enforcement about applications they plan to conduct
- Community outreach and education programs: requiring fumigant registrants to develop and implement community outreach programs, including programs for first responders, to ensure that information about fumigants and safety is available within communities where soil fumigation occurs.
While these steps will likely reduce the number of poisoning incidents involving fumigant pesticides, environmentalists are disappointed that EPA is continuing to register outdated and unnecessary pest management chemicals.“Fumigation is an antiquated technology that relies on killing everything in the soil,” said Susan Kegley, Ph.D., senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA). “EPA has made some real progress with buffer zones, notification, posting and monitoring – they actually heard some of what we’ve been telling them. And they’ve put the burden back on manufacturers for responsible handling of these highly toxic chemicals. But it’s time to help farmers move beyond this ”˜scorched earth’ approach. The new rules are a small start.”
Jeannie Economos, pesticide health and safety coordinator with the Farmworker Association of Florida, adds, “We appreciate the mitigation measures that EPA has taken. However, we foresee that enforcement could still be problematic. Any exposure of a worker or a farmworker community is a risk that we shouldn’t take. The best solution is to ban fumigants altogether.”
Many advocates do believe, however, that the combination of posting, advance notification of state agencies, and buffer zones around fields will reduce the number of fumigant poisonings, and when something does go wrong, communities and emergency personnel will be better prepared to respond.
“Clearly major accidents, continued exposure, and technical critiques are not enough to get rid of fumigation,” said Dr. Kegley. “During the entire three years of this fumigant assessment process, there’s been a tendency in EPA’s analyses to whittle away at established ‘safety factors’ designed to protect communities. We’re guardedly optimistic that the new rules are a step toward protecting public health, but the final result represents a continued failure to take agriculture off the pesticide treadmill.”
The Fumigant Cluster Assessment is a “final” EPA decision, but they will collect public comments for 60 days following publication in the federal register. They acknowledge the possibility of fine-tuning resulting in an amended decision.
Read the about EPA’s final fumigant rule.