(Beyond Pesticides, September 21, 2011) An unregistered pesticide product, which was smuggled into the U.S. from overseas and contained an ingredient at a concentration of nearly 61 times greater than allowed by federal regulations, was one of 6,000 rat and cockroach poison products seized from shops and street vendors in and around New York’s Chinatown. The pesticides are particularly dangerous because their packaging and appearance could lead them to be mistaken for cookies or cough medicine.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with several other federal and state agencies, including the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the New York Office of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HIS), and the New York Office of the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), on Monday announced federal criminal charges against two defendants, and state criminal charges against 10 defendants, for their respective roles in the illegal distribution and sale of unregistered and misbranded pesticides that were sold out of multiple locations in Manhattan.
All pesticides pose unique risks to users and the environment at large since they are designed to kill living organisms; many have been linked to several chronic diseases including cancer. Learn more about the health risks posed by pesticides at the Pesticides-Induced Diseases Database. However pesticides that have not been reviewed for their safety and do not have warning statements on their product labels are especially dangerous. The pesticide products in question are not registered by EPA and missing required label warnings, so consumers had no way of knowing how dangerous the products were or how best to protect themselves from harmful exposure. One woman accidentally ingested one of the pesticides, believing it to be medicine, and was hospitalized as a result. An investigation of this incident revealed that the pesticide, a small vial of blue-green liquid labeled primarily in Chinese with the words “The Cat Be Unemployed,” was being sold illegally in the Chinatown section of Manhattan. The investigation further revealed that the product contained almost 61 times the amount of brodifacoum -a rodenticide- that is allowed by the EPA. Brodifacoum is not approved for direct consumer use and may only be used by licensed professionals.
As part of a coordinated citywide inspection of 47 businesses in various neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, EPA and DEC civil inspectors seized 350 additional unregistered pesticide products, of 16 different varieties, many with high levels of toxicity. Many of the products were carcinogenic and neurotoxic.
“All across the city we find products like these,” Judith Enck, EPA’s regional administrator, said at the news conference, referring to a display of colorful unregulated pesticides that she said could easily be confused for children’s toys or candy. “People and businesses that make and sell these products are playing Russian roulette with people’s health.”
The operation involved purchases of the following dangerous chemicals: (1) Bromadiolone and Brofidacoum, both “restricted use” chemicals, which are active ingredients in rodenticides, or pesticides used to kill rodents. They are both highly toxic and are not approved for use by the general public, nor may either be in products intended for consumer or urban use; (2) Sodium fluoroacetate, also highly toxic, is a “restricted use” chemical, that is only approved for use to protect livestock from coyotes and can only be used by a licensed professional; and (3) Fipronil is an active ingredient in insecticides. The products sold to undercover agents had significantly higher levels of fipronil than allowed by EPA. Read more about these rodenticides and others in Beyond Pesticides’ factsheet.
The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., whose investigators seized the majority of the illegal pesticides, suggested that it would be worth considering legislation to allow prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for such crimes, based on the concentrations and quantities sold.
“The rodenticides and roach killers that were seized as part of this investigation,” Mr. Vance said, “are dangerous, unregulated products that contain chemicals so toxic they exceed government regulation scores at times.”
Recently EPA announced that it is moving forward with actions introduced in June to ban the sale to consumers of the most toxic rat and mouse poisons, as well as consumer rodenticide products that use loose bait and pellets. Exposure to children is also a major concern for these chemicals. According to a 2006 Annual Report of the American Association Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System, over 40,000 cases of exposures to rodenticide products occurred in children six years and younger. Data also indicate that children in low-income families are disproportionately exposed. Many rodenticide chemicals have also led to the deaths of birds of prey when they ingest rodents contaminated by the poisons. In 2008, EPA outlined new measures it said will help protect children and the public from accidental poisonings and decrease exposures to pets and wildlife from rodent-control products. To reduce risks, EPA requires that all rodenticide bait products available for sale to consumers are sold only in tamper-resistant bait stations. Loose baits such as pellets are prohibited in a bait form for residential use. Rodenticide products containing brodifacoum, bromadiolone, difethialone and difenacoum, known to pose the greatest risk to wildlife, will no longer be allowed to be sold or distributed in the consumer market. However, these actions do not go far enough for vulnerable populations, because they will still be allowed by pesticide applicators and in agricultural settings.
Take Action: Pesticides can be even more dangerous than is typical if they are sold and used outside U.S. federal laws and guidelines. To avoid buying illegal pesticide products, read the pesticide label. Make sure you can identify the EPA registration number. Also, look for a list of active ingredients. U.S. law requires that active ingredients are listed on product labels. For more information, visit EPA’s Illegal Pesticides Webpage. If you are unsure about one or more ingredients, or do not understand the label, you may wish to research them either on the internet, at the local library or by contacting Beyond Pesticides (firstname.lastname@example.org, 202-543-5450). For least toxic control of mice and other pests visit the alternatives page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.