(Beyond Pesticides, January 4, 2017) The New Year saw its first pesticide-related tragedy yesterday when four children, ranging in age from 7-17, died from a toxic pesticide treatment on their house in Amarillo, Texas. The pesticide at issue, aluminum phosphide, was illegally applied under a mobile home where at least ten people were living. The chemical, classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a restricted use pesticide (RUP), is restricted for use by certified applicators (and those under their supervision) and it is a violation to use it within 100 feet of residential structures. CNN reports that a family member used water to try and wash away the pesticide after it was applied, and the combination of water and aluminum phosphide increased the release of toxic phosphine gas.
The incident demonstrates the deficiency of managing risks of highly toxic chemicals by labeling them “restricted use.” It has been Beyond Pesticides’ position that chemicals with aluminum phosphide’s level of toxicity should not be available on the market, even with restrictions. In making regulatory determinations on pesticide allowances, advocates have urged EPA to calculate the reality of misuse and accidents, instead of assuming 100% compliance with product label instructions. With this approach, the agency would not register pesticides as highly toxic as aluminum phosphide. Similarly, Beyond Pesticides has argued that the registration of chemicals like aluminum phosphide is “unreasonable” under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), given the availability of alternative methods and products for rodent control.
FIFRA allows EPA to register a pesticide that “when applied in accordance with its directions for use, warnings and cautions and for the uses for which it is registered, or for one or more of such uses, or in accordance with a widespread and commonly recognized practice, may generally cause, without additional regulatory restrictions, unreasonable adverse effects on the environment” –if it classifies the pesticide as “restricted use.” RUPs may be legally used only by certified applicators or someone acting under the direct supervision of a certified applicator. Although certified commercial applicators must demonstrate proficiency, certified private applicators may only be required to attend training.
First responders arrived at the home after receiving a call that many members of the family had fallen ill, but by the time they arrived it was too late for the children, as one was dead at the scene and the three others died shortly after being rushed to the hospital. Children generally are more susceptible to chemical exposure than adults because they take in more pesticides relative to their body weight and have developing organ systems that are more vulnerable and less able to detoxify toxic chemicals. In 2010, two young girls aged 4 and 18 months died in Utah after being exposed to the same poisonous gas when aluminum phosphide was used on their lawn to treat a rat infestation. For more information on how pesticide exposure can affect children more acutely than adults, see our fact sheet Children and Pesticides Don’t Mix. The incident is currently being reported as an accidental poisoning.
Aluminum phosphide and other phosphide fumigants are known to be highly acutely toxic when ingested or inhaled, and aluminum phosphide is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Toxicity Category I, which is the highest and most toxic category. Symptoms of mild to moderate acute exposure include nausea, abdominal pain, tightness in chest, excitement, restlessness, agitation and chills. Symptoms of more severe exposure include, diarrhea, cyanosis, difficulty breathing, pulmonary edema, respiratory failure, tachycardia (rapid pulse) and hypotension (low blood pressure), dizziness and/or death. Aluminum and magnesium phosphide fumigants are used primarily to control insects in stored grain and other agricultural commodities. They also are used to control burrowing rodents in outdoor agricultural and other non-domestic areas. The fumigants are restricted to use by specially trained pesticide applicators.
In recent years, EPA has taken steps to try and address the clearly inadequate regulations regarding phosphide fumigants, but the recent death of these four children indicates that they need to revisit the current rules. In 2010, EPA imposed new restrictions on aluminum and magnesium phosphide products in an attempt to better protect people, especially children, from dangerous exposures. The restrictions prohibit, by requiring it be included on product labels, all uses of the products around residential areas and increase buffer zones for treatment around non-residential buildings that could be occupied by people or animals from 15 feet to 100 feet. However, the latest incident raises concerns about the adequacy of the pesticide’s label restrictions to actually protect human lives, and the enforceability of the rules when violations occur.
Beyond Pesticides advocates defined integrated pest management (IPM) for structural pest prevention and the utilization of non-toxic methods to manage rodents. If defined clearly, IPM eliminates toxic pesticide use and exposure to any toxic products. Sanitation, structural repairs, mechanical and biological control, pest population monitoring, and occupant education on eliminating pest conducive conditions are some IPM methods that prevent or control rodents and insects.
EPA recognizes that the use of toxic chemicals to control rodents is itself not effective rodent management. IPM practices are recommended by EPA for rodent control in and around households. EPA advises that effective rodent control requires sanitation, rodent proofing, and removal of rodent harborage, habitat modification to make an area less attractive to rodents, and discourage new populations from recolonizing the area. Non-chemical devices such as snap traps and other trapping systems are also affordable and quite effective as a method for rodent control.
However, while EPA recognizes that IPM practices are safe and effective methods for controlling rodents, the dependency on the rodenticides as a means of control continues. Given that EPA acknowledges that effective rodent management will not be achieved without the adoption of safer IPM techniques, it is imperative that these practices are promoted to the consumer so that efforts can work toward the elimination of public and environmental exposures to low levels of toxic rodenticides. To do this, rodenticide labels must require the users to establish IPM practices and only allow the introduction of poisons as a part of this approach as a last resort.
For more information on rodenticides and the alternatives to managing rodents, see Beyond Pesticides fact sheet “Rodents Teach Lesson of Failed Chemical Controls: City officials gather to learn new approaches to rodent management less dependent on chemicals, more focused on habitat reduction.” For least toxic control of mice and other pests visit Beyond Pesticides’ alternatives page.
All unattributed positions are that of Beyond Pesticides.