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Daily News Blog

19
Jan

Hazardous Synthetic Pyrethroid Insecticides Subject of Lawsuit Against EPA

(Beyond Pesticides, January 19, 2022) After registering over 300 products containing synthetic pyrethroid pesticides within the last six years, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done nothing to safeguard endangered species from toxic exposure to these chemicals, despite legal requirement to do so. This dereliction of duty is set to be the subject of a new lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, which announced its intent to sue EPA. “The EPA admits pyrethroids’ wide-ranging harm to wildlife but still rubberstamps hundreds of pesticide products containing them without assessing their risks to endangered species,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center. “The EPA needs to get serious and come up with a comprehensive plan to address the havoc these pesticides are wreaking on the environment.”

Synthetic pyrethroid insecticides are synthesized derivatives of pyrethrins, which are found in pyrethrum, an extract of dried chrysanthemum flowers. Compared to their natural counterpart, synthetic pyrethroids take significantly longer to degrade in the environment and thus pose longer term risks to humans and wildlife. The chemicals interfere with the proper function of the body’s sodium channels, resulting in harm to the central nervous system. Symptoms of poisoning include headache, nausea, incoordination, tremors, and facial swelling, with severe incidents causing diarrhea,  convulsions, paralysis, and death.

Despite the range of dangers posed by the use of these chemicals, EPA has continued to registered new products without a legally required biological assessment under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under ESA, EPA is required to consult with federal wildlife agencies and conduct a biological evaluation of the impacts a pesticide may have on endangered species and their habitats, prior to the agency formally registering a pesticide. In practice, EPA regularly fails to conduct this evaluation, requiring environmental and conservation organizations to sue the agency in order to force compliance with the law. (See tomorrow’s Daily News on EPA’s new ESA biological opinion policy.) 

While the implications are dire for species at the brink of existence, the penalty for the agency failing to follow the law is effectively nil. The legal tables are tilted towards deference to agency actions, and EPA consistently claims it does not have the capacity to conduct timely biological assessments. Instead of requesting funds from Congress to complete this work, EPA recently lowed the cost it would charge pesticide companies to register hazardous pesticides that could kill endangered species. In this context, accountability is found through legal settlements on work plans with the agency, which commit EPA to a timeline for completing the assessment.

“We’ll see if the Biden EPA can muster the political will to finally follow the law, or if it will just continue throwing endangered species under the bus,” said Ms. Burd at the Center. “For decades the pesticide industry has called the shots for the EPA, but as the extinction crisis worsens we’re hoping this administration will finally provide the leadership our most imperiled plants and animals need to survive.”

Biden’s EPA has a range of opportunities to correct course on synthetic pyrethroids. While this path starts with ESA reviews, there is still time for the agency to reject Trump-era decisions that put wildlife, particularly endangered species, and human health in harms way. In both instances, EPA placed the opinion of the pesticide industry above the science, and above the health of everyday Americans and the environmental on which they depend.

First, EPA stripped away protections that reduced children’s exposure to pyrethroids. There is broad scientific understanding that children are at greater risk from toxic pesticides, and in 1996 Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act, amending pesticide law to require a “safety factor”  be imposed on pesticide products in attempts to protect children. This provision resulted in EPA reducing children’s allowed exposure to a pesticide active ingredient by 3 to 10 times. Although even these factors may not be wholly protective in many cases, they are to be added unless there is compelling evidence that these safety factors are unnecessary. In the case of synthetic pyrethroids, EPA allowed a letter from the pesticide industry umbrella group Croplife America to dictate its approach to protecting children from hazardous, neurotoxic pyrethroids. The model proposed by Croplife eliminated safety factors for children. In a rare instance, EPA conducted an outside literature review to buttress its argument, but instead ignored those data and prioritized the unprotective model proposed by the pesticide industry.

After selling out children’s health, the agency then took directions from a group referring to themselves as the “Pyrethroid Working Group (PWG).” If you pictured a motley crew of independent scientists, you’d be quite wrong. PWG is comprised of major pesticide manufacturers Bayer, FMC, Syngenta, BASF, AMVAC, and Valent. At the request of this working group, EPA reduced a proposal from EPA staff scientists to implement 66 ft buffer zones between agricultural fields and water bodies down to 10-25 ft. The agency also agreed that wind speeds up to 15 miles per hour were acceptable for pyrethroid applications, despite previous proposals setting the cut-off at 10 mph.

While these adverse decisions occurred under the Trump administration, the rot of industry corruption within EPA spans administrations. It is important to underline how rare it is for EPA to make substantive changes in the other direction, towards the protection of health, once presented with strong evidence.

With the default assumption that pesticide provide benefits, and that harms must be proven, our post-cautionary approach to pesticide regulation is failing people and the environment. Lawsuits like the Center’s are critical to holding EPA accountable to current laws in a post-cautionary system, but major changes are needed to prevent toxic pesticides from being registered in the first place. Help send the message to EPA Administrator Michael Regan that now is the time to stand up to the influence of the pesticide industry, ignore their letters, suggestions, and eventual protestations, and implement real, meaningful pesticide reforms.  

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Center for Biological Diversity (press release)

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