(Beyond Pesticides, February 11, 2013) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced its decision to allow residues of the cancer causing insecticide endosulfan on imported Chinese teas until July 31, 2016. Its decision to provide “additional time to transition to an alternative to endosulfan” raises serious concerns of further exposure to the toxic carcinogen for farmworkers and consumers.
In May 2011, EPA proposed to revoke all tolerances for endosulfan, as, “It can pose unacceptable health risks to farmworkers and wildlife and can persist in the environment.” The agency proposed transition time that would allow growers time to adopt alternatives, with the last four uses ending on July 31, 2016. For tea, EPA proposed an immediate revocation, since there is little if any endosulfan used in tea production in the U.S. However, the Chamber of Commerce of the Zhejiang International Tea Industry filed a complaint indicating that it would need five years or less to find feasible alternatives to endosulfan. It also indicated that it was unable to provide comment on the tolerance revocation ruling as the EPA did not provide proper notice to the World Trade Organization. In acknowledging this oversight, EPA will allow endosulfan residues of 24 parts per million (ppm) in imported Chinese tea, until July 31, 2016. Despite the risks posed by endosulfan residues, EPA sees the decision as “appropriate,” raising questions of whether EPA is putting economic interests ahead of public health.
EPA has historically favored long phase-out periods, despite the risks posed by prolonging the use of toxic pesticides. Indeed, EPA has allowed the use of endosulfan to be extended till mid 2016 for use in livestock ear tags, pineapples, strawberries, and vegetable crops for seed such as broccoli and kale, despite the fact that the DDT-era pesticide, endosulfan, is known to be extremely toxic: More than 74 countries have already banned endosulfan in recognition of its impacts to human health and the environment. Acute poisoning from endosulfan includes headaches, nausea, vomiting, convulsions, and in extreme cases, unconsciousness and even death. Studies have linked endosulfan to smaller testicles, lower sperm production, an increase in the risk of miscarriages and autism. It is also a potent environmental pollutant and is especially toxic to fish and other aquatic life, and affects birds, bees, earthworms, and other beneficial insects.
Endosulfan is volatile, persistent, and has a high potential to bio-accumulate in aquatic and terrestrial organisms. A large body of scientific literature documents endosulfan’s medium- and long-range transport on a global scale and subsequent accumulation in nearly all environmental media. In May 2011, endosulfan was finally added to the Stockholm Convention’s list of banned substances. The decision follows recommendations from the December 2009 Stockholm Convention Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee (POPRC), which called for urgent “global action” to address health and environmental impacts of the toxic pesticide. Scientific experts at the POPRC concluded that endosulfan is likely to cause significant adverse human health and environmental effects as a result of the chemical’s medium- and long-range transport on a global scale and subsequent accumulation in nearly all environmental media.
EPA’s announcement underscores the continuing problem of toxic contamination of commodities coming from China. China, as well as other countries like India and Sri Lanka, uses pesticides extensively in tea production. In April 2012, the environmental group Greenpeace released a report that Unilever’s Lipton tea bags made in China contain pesticide residues that exceeded European Union’s (EU) maximum levels, three of these pesticides were banned for use in tea production by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, and seven of them were prohibited in the European Union, including endosulfan and bifenthrin. Of the tested teas, 13 pesticides were found in the green and tieguanyin tea and residue from nine was found in jasmine tea, according to Greenpeace.
“Despite their statement that their pesticides comply with national standards and that they are determined to minimize the amount of chemicals, the facts prove it is nothing but empty promises,” said a Greenpeace executive, Wang Jing, at his office in Beijing. The evidence exemplifies sharp criticism that the Chinese have not adequately addressed health violations in its food sector and continues to raise concerns on their impacts to human health and the environment.
According to the Tea Association of the USA, “Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water, and can be found in almost all U.S. households”¦ On any given day, about one half of the American population drinks tea.” Of the tea that American’s drinks, over 22 percent comes from China, representing 24,821 MT of tea, second only to Argentina. Consumers ask, if EPA is concerned about reducing exposures to endosulfan, wouldn’t it put more restrictive revocation timelines for widely consumed products?
The extension of allowed tolerance for endosulfan in Chinese tea represents the continued threat for farmworkers, consumers and the environment. To ensure that the tea you’re drinking is not contaminated with endosulfan, consumers should protect themselves by purchasing USDA Organic Certified products when possible. Beyond Pesticides advocates through “Eating with a Conscience” for consumers to choose organic because of the environmental and health benefits to consumers, workers, and rural families. The Eating with a Conscience database, based on legal tolerances (or allowable residues on food commodities), describes a chemical-intensive food production system that enables toxic pesticide use both domestically and internationally, and provides a look at the toxic chemicals allowed in the production of the food we eat and the environmental and public health effects resulting from their use. For more information on the benefits of organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Food program page.
Take Action: Tell EPA that we need strong regulations against tea tainted with endosulfan.
We urge citizens concerned about the integrity of our food to speak out and provide a public comment to EPA. Submit your comments to the federal docket (the best way to get your voiced heard) using docket number EPA-HQ-OPP-2011-0104 at http://www.regulations.gov.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.