(Beyond Pesticides, March 18, 2011) As a result of recent court mandated consultations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) concerning pacific salmon and steel head, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a letter to the National Research Council (NRC) is requesting the convening of a committee of independent experts to assist in the review of special scientific and technical issues that have arisen as the agency attempts to stem the impact of pesticides on these endangered species.
Citing issues of scientific complexity and high importance, the letter authored by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, requests on behalf of the EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a “concerted, closely coordinated effort” to address these issues openly and actively. NRC’s assistance is sought due to the number of complex scientific issues brought to the attention of the agencies as they complete consultations under the ESA concerning the impact of pesticides on endangered salmon and steelhead.
Even though calls for EPA to holistically review pesticides have been made by scientists and the environmental community before, EPA is now seeking advice in assessing the effect of pesticides and other Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)-related actions on endangered species, including the identification of best-available scientific data and information, the consideration of sublethal, cumulative and indirect effects of pesticides, the effects of chemical mixtures and inert ingredients. EPA and the other agencies are also interested in gathering information on the best use of models to assist in analyzing the effects of pesticide use, incorporating uncertainties effectively, as well as the use of geospatial information and datasets in assessments. With this committee of experts provided by the NRC, the agencies hope to refine their scope and effort in their reviews and consultations.
EPA was court ordered to consult with NMFS to identify measures needed to protect salmon and steelhead from the pesticides as a result of a 2002 and 2007 lawsuit. NMFS issued three Biological Opinions, the latest on August 2010, which found that several pesticides are likely to jeopardize federally listed threatened or endangered Pacific salmon and steelhead and their designated critical habitat. NMFS called for several limitations on aerial spraying and ground application of the pesticides near salmon waters, as well as buffer zones around salmon waters and ditches that drain to salmon habitat, among others. EPA has since been sued by environmental and fishing groups over a failure to limit the use of pesticides in areas of threatened habitat.
The pesticides that impact endangered salmon are some of the most dangerous chemicals used today. Chlorpyrifos, diazinon, malathion, carbaryl, carbofuran, and methomyl are neurotoxic and pose serious risks to both humans and wildlife. While many of these pesticides have been phased out for residential use, they continue to expose wildlife and farmworkers through their use in agriculture. Studies have shown that mixtures of organophosphate and carbamate pesticides cause more harm to endangered salmon than individual pesticide exposure and are commonly detected in freshwater habitats that support these threatened and endangered species.
Cumulative pesticidal effects and the effect of chemical mixtures have long been ignored by EPA in its review and registration of pesticide products. Scientists have argued for years that toxic exposures to pesticides should be measured as they would normally occur, in combination with one another. Yet, current federal law does not require this type of testing for pesticides on the market, except in very limited instances. Scientists believe that current methods of chemical risk assessment may lead to considerable underestimations of risks associated with exposures to chemicals. Research has shown that mixtures of chemicals can have a synergistic effect, meaning the effect of multiple chemicals is greater than the sum of the individual effects. A 2009 study shows that exposure to a mixture of pesticides and other chemicals has a synergistic effect on the development of male sex organs.
Pesticides have been detected in every major salmon stream in the Pacific Northwest and California. It has been found that even at low levels these pesticides harm salmon and steelhead by causing abnormal sexual development, impairing swimming ability, and reducing growth rates.