(Beyond Pesticides, August 20, 2010) Behind closed doors this past Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Bayer CropScience reached an agreement on a set of measures to gradually reduce and ultimately ban fully the use of the insecticde aldicarb in the U.S. This decision arrives on the heels of a revised risk assessment in which EPA found that babies and children under the age of five can ingest levels of the insecticide through food and drinking water at levels that exceed limits that the agency finds safe, and 25 years after 2,000 people fell ill after eating watermelons that were tainted with the pesticide. Though Beyond Pesticides applauds any decision to remove toxic chemicals from the environment, the problem with this cancellation, as with virtually all voluntary cancellations, is that the chemical can be legally used for years —eight years in this case — leaving open the opportunity for continued human and environmental exposure and harm.
The decision was reached after EPA completed a revised risk assessment indicating that the pesticide does not meet the agency’s food safety standards. EPA scrutinized recent food consumption data from USDA to complete the risk assessment, which considered the percent of the crop treated, processing/cooking data, and estimated drinking water concentrations. The risk assessment found that the aggregate dietary exposure reflecting the existing uses exceeds the level of concern for children and infants, with exposures at 800% for infants, 440% for children ages 1-2 and 360% for children ages 3-5 of the acute population assessment dose (PAD), assuming a half life of 2 hours. Potatoes, citrus fruits and water were found to be the greatest contributors to the aldicarb exposure. Food only (and not drinking water) passed the acute PAD when all citrus foods and potatoes were removed. However, the aggregate exposure (from all other food and drinking water estimates) for infants and children still exceeds the level of concern at 800% for infants, 330% for children ages 1-2 and 290% for children ages 3-5.
Since uses for citrus and potatoes pose the most significant risks, Bayer has agreed to cancel the registrations for these uses immediately, meaning no new products labeled for potatoes and citrus fruits can be distributed; however, existing supplies may be used until the end of 2011. Though Bayer has agreed to end production of aldicarb by December 31, 2014, the pesticide will continue to be distributed until the end of 2016, and will still be registered for use on cotton, beans, peanuts, soybeans, sugar beets, and sweet potatoes until August 31, 2018. In this time, Bayer has also agreed to limited uses on cotton, peanuts and soybeans, in order to reduce its runoff in water wells in parts of the southeastern U.S., where drinking water exposure is considered the highest.
Aldicarb is the active ingredient in Bayer’s Temik 15G, and is used on a variety of agricultural crops. This systemic N-methyl carbamate insecticide is used to control mites, nematodes, and aphids, but has no residential uses. Aldicarb targets the nervous system, and effects infants and children more severely than adults. Symptoms from exposure include sweating, nausea, dizziness, blurred vision, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and even death due to paralysis of the respiratory system. Aldicarb is listed as a potential endocrine disruptor on the European Commission list of endocrine disruptors. It has also been linked to neurotoxic and reproductive effects, asthma, and learning behavior problems.
Aldicarb was first registered in 1970, but was placed under Special Review in 1984. EPA is authorized to use the Pesticide Special Review process, an expedited process because of elevated risks, when a pesticide is suspected to have unreasonable adverse effects on people or the environment. EPA identified potential human health risks from drinking water exposure and environmental risks to birds, mammals, and fish in 2007. However, despite these adverse effects, EPA decided to approve aldicarb for reregistration provided that risk mitigation measures and label amendments were adopted to protect against unreasonable risk.
Aldicarb won’t be completely banned from use until 2018, which is a long period of time for such a hazardous pesticide proven to leach into drinking water supplies and endanger human and environmental health. It is believed that EPA chose to negotiate with Bayer CropScience instead of outright banning the use of aldicarb outright because the agency likely thought that it would spur a lengthy legal battle. However, due to the toxic nature of the chemical, Beyond Pesticides believes that EPA in cases like this should use its “imminent hazard” authority to take immediate action, if Bayer chose to fight it in court, which would bring unfavorable publicity to Bayer and an industry that struggles with its public health and environmental image.
This kind of negotiation between a chemical manufacturer and EPA echos EPA’s 2000 negotiated settlement with Dow AgroSciences, which allows the highest volume of use of the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos to continue (groups recently filed a lawsuit in federal court to force EPA to decide whether or not it will cancel all remaining uses and tolerances for chlorpyrifos). This represents a classic failure of the risk assessment process (including the so-called cumulative risk assessment which accounts for all chemicals with the same mechanism of toxicity) under the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) —a failure that is repeated over and over again in agency chemical regulation decisions.
The agency is arguing the same thing now as it did then: that it had adequately mitigated risks through the removal of high exposure uses to children in one setting without taking into account risks to other populations’ exposure, as well as the availability of alternative agricultural practices and products that make the chemical unnecessary and therefore its risks unreasonable. The risk assessment process does not force a consideration of those who suffer disproportionate risk or groups of people (such as those with neurological dieases in this case who are disproportinately affected), or the often overlooked seasonal variations in food consumptions.
In September, EPA plans to publish a Federal Register notice announcing the voluntary cancellation of aldicarb use on citrus and potato. The notice will be open to public comment for 30 days, after which the EPA plans to grant the requested cancellations. The memorandum of agreement and the agency’s updated dietary risk assessment and supporting materials will be available in the aldicarb reregistration docket, EPA-HQ-OPP-2005-0163, and in the aldicarb Special Review docket, EPA-HQ-OPP-2006-0197, at regulations.gov.