(Beyond Pesticides, January, 11, 2011) Responding to a June 2006 petition submitted by Fluoride Action Network, Beyond Pesticides, and Environmental Working Group, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that it proposes to eliminate the use of the toxic fumigant sulfuryl fluoride in agriculture and food related applications. The agency plans to cancel all allowable pesticide residue levels (tolerances) for the chemical, finding that, when residues on food products are combined with fluoridated drinking water and toothpaste, public exposure levels are too high. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), EPA is required to ensure that pesticides it has registered for use cannot combine with non-food sources of the same substance to result in unsafe levels of exposure for that chemical.
According to EPA officials, the decision appears to be the first time the agency has granted substantive formal objections to a pesticide tolerance rule based on public health advocates’ evidence that a particular chemical’s use violates the safety standard for aggregate exposures under federal law.
Despite granting the petition’s assertion that total public exposure to fluoride is too high, EPA has denied the petition’s request for an immediate stay of all registered uses of sulfuryl fluoride. Citing “environmental and economic consequences” of an immediate withdrawal, the agency has opted instead for a long-term, three year phase out of several of the chemical’s uses, saying that “the risks from continued sulfuryl fluoride use in the short term is [sic] insignificant.” This seemingly goes against the agency’s stated belief that “aggregate fluoride exposure for infants and children under the age of 7 years old, where drinking water contains high levels of natural fluoride, exceeds the level that can cause severe dental fluorosis.”
Prior to this 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. However, 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 the 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.
If EPA makes the proposal final, many uses of the pesticide sulfuryl fluoride would stop within 90 days. A three-year phase-out period would be extended for other uses, including dried nuts and fruits and usage by direct handling facilities like flour mills.
The actions by EPA and HHS represent a growing consensus that the American public is being exposed to excessive fluoride. They amount to admissions that for decades, public health agencies have erroneously reassured the public that fluoride is safe. As a result, generations of children have been exposed to amounts of fluoride that could damage teeth and bones and that emerging science indicates could harm thyroid function and increase risks for bone cancer.
EPA has made its draft assessments public and open for comment for 90 days at Regulations.gov.