(Beyond Pesticides, March 15, 2011) Following the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) January 10th announcement that it plans to cancel all allowable pesticide residue levels (tolerances) of the toxic fumigant sulfuryl fluoride–effectively banning its use, the chemical’s manufacturer, Dow AgroSciences, is petitioning EPA to launch a formal registration cancellation hearing under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). EPA decided to cancel the tolerances under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) after determining that when residues on food products are combined with fluoridated drinking water and toothpaste, public exposure levels are too high. The agency took the action in response to a June 2006 petition submitted by Fluoride Action Network, Beyond Pesticides, and Environmental Working Group.
Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA) amendments to FFDCA require that a pesticide registered for use by EPA cannot exceed acceptable risk thresholds when its dietary and nondietary uses are evaluated in the aggregate. Environmentalists believe that the January 2011 sulfuryl fluoride decision was the first time EPA action has resulted in a comprehensive pesticide cancellation of agricultural uses (as distinct from a voluntary cancellation by the manufacturer) because of unacceptable aggregate exposure.
While cancellation hearings are not provided under FFDCA, Dow is arguing that because EPA’s tolerance cancellation would essentially result in a cancellation of all sulfuryl fluoride pesticide products it is entitled to a hearing under FIFRA. However, Section 6 of FIFRA states, “If at any time it appears that a pesticide or its labeling or other required material does not comply with the Act or that it generally causes unreasonable adverse effects on the environment when used in accordance with widespread and commonly recognized practice, the Administrator may issue notice of intent to cancel the registration or change the classification of the pesticide or hold a hearing to consider the pesticide’s cancellation or change of classification.” The legal counsel for the objectors states that FIFRA does not guarantee a hearing for Dow.
If EPA does move forward with an administrative hearing, it is possible that the agency could decide to maintain the current tolerances and reduce aggregate exposure by working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reduce fluoride exposure in drinking water, toothpaste and other fluoride-containing products.
In related news, U.S. Congressman Dennis Cardoza (CA-18), who represents California’s Central Valley, accused EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson of “agency activism.” Comparing EPA’s decision on sulfuryl fluoride to “judicial activism,” Rep. Cardoza said the EPA’s agency activism is burdening farmers with “extreme regulations.”
Prior to the January 10th announcement, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and EPA’s Office of Water announced action on fluoride on January 7 in the form of tightening standards for fluoride levels in drinking water, proposing to reduce its recommended maximum level of fluoride in tap water from 1.2 to 0.7 parts per million (ppm), a 42 percent decrease. This means that, because the previous standards were higher, communities across the country that receive fluoridated water have been subjected to unsafe levels of fluoride for decades. Additionally, health advocates at Fluoride Action Network have criticized the new rules, saying that they do not go far enough. According to the American Dental Association, newborn babies and infants up to one year of age should not be consuming any fluoridated water. This is particularly significant since EPA has cited concern about heightened risks to infants as a chief motivator for eliminating sulfuryl fluoride.
Sulfuryl fluoride is a dangerous chemical which has been linked to cancer as well as neurological, developmental, and reproductive damages. Sulfuryl fluoride is acutely moderately toxic by oral exposure (Toxicity Category II) and slightly toxic for acute inhalation (Toxicity Categories III and IV) and dermal vapor toxicity (Toxicity Category IV). Residents and workers are at risk for neurotoxic effects from acute exposure. Subchronic studies on rats have indicated effects on the nervous system, lungs, and brain. Developmental and reproductive effects have also been noted in relevant studies on rats. According to the National Research Council, fluorides might also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and boys exposed to fluoride in drinking water are five times more likely to develop osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
In addition to its health effects, the chemical has been shown to be a highly potent greenhouse gas. Research has shown that it can be as much as 4,000 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, the leading atmospheric contributor to climate change. It currently exists in the atmosphere at much smaller concentrations than CO2, which is why its use must be curtailed before it becomes even more of a concern.
EPA first registered the agricultural use of sulfuryl fluoride in 2004 as an insecticide and established tolerances for a wide range of crops including cereal grains, dried fruits, tree nuts, cocoa beans, and coffee beans. In 2009, despite the urging of health and environmental advocates, Dow AgroSciences was granted permission to sell sulfuryl fluoride for use in sterilizing agricultural fields as well as for fumigation of food storage, handling, and processing facilities.
EPA has made its draft assessments public and open for comment for 90 days at Regulations.gov. Submit comments by April 18, 2011.