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Daily News Blog

11
Mar

Despite Past Findings of Insecticide’s Threat to 1,284 Species, EPA Reverses and Allows Continued Use

(Beyond Pesticides, March 11, 2022) With a history of unenforceable and impractical pesticide label restrictions resulting in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) findings of ludicrously small or no risk, the agency is at it again with its latest announcement that allows the continued use of the deadly organophosphate insecticide malathion. This just the latest example of what advocates see as an irresponsible federal agency falling far short, as the nation and world sit on the brink of biodiversity collapse and deadly pesticide-induced diseases.  

In a head-spinning development, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced on March 8 its final Biological Opinion (BiOp) on malathion, which opinion claims that the commonly used insecticide poses no extinction risk to any protected animal or plant. The FWS review and BiOp are part of EPA’s evaluation of whether malathion — an organophosphate insecticide that causes serious damage to many organisms — should retain its registration. The Executive Summary of the BiOp concludes: “Our findings suggest that no proposed species or candidate species would experience species-level effects from the action [i.e., registration and thus, permitted use of malathion], and, therefore, are not likely to be jeopardized. We also conclude the proposed action is not likely to destroy or adversely modify any proposed critical habitats.” Advocates view this BiOp as a terrible setback for biodiversity and wildlife, including pollinators, aquatic organisms, and birds, and for fragile ecosystems.

More than a million pounds of malathion are used annually in the U.S. on cotton, corn, and other crops; as of 2018, another two million pounds was also in use for home gardens, miscellaneous purposes, and mosquito control. Pest management entities, whether private companies, states, or localities, deploy malathion for adulticiding of mosquitos — a notoriously ineffective strategy that uses spray trucks in the hope of “knocking down” mosquitoes that happen to be in the immediate area at a given moment.

Malathion spray, whether for mosquitoes or on crops, can travel and impact a wide area, exposing nontarget organisms and humans alike. In humans, malathion exposure is linked with reproductive, endocrine, neurological, hepatic, renal, and developmental harms. Its terrible impacts on wildlife are well-documented. Further, as Beyond Pesticides covered in February 2022, widespread, intensive pesticide use for mosquito control has catalyzed development of resistance to those same pesticides in some mosquito populations — an inevitable outcome of chemical treatment of pests. A shift to alternative strategies is overdue.

The history of EPA and malathion is fraught. In 2017, after an EPA finding that use of organophosphate insecticides has negative impacts on more than 1,000 endangered and threatened species — and that malathion, specifically, threatens 1,284 species — Dow Chemical pressured the Trump administration to ignore the studies that underlay that finding. Later that year, the administration sought a two-year delay in EPA’s review of malathion. In 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) discovered documents that showed that the Trump administration had this information on the harms to species in 2017 and suppressed it. Indeed, top officials at the Department of the Interior, including Acting Secretary David Bernhardt, knew of and stopped the release of a FWS BiOp that showed the extent of the dangers of this class of pesticides.

According to the Associated Press, “[FWS] officials now say malathion could cause limited harm to hundreds of species, but is unlikely to jeopardize any of them with extinction as long as labels that dictate its use are changed,” but advocates insist that proposed changes to labels would do little to protect species that in some cases have dwindled to very few individuals.” In addition, this “no extinction” claim, even if borne out, would depend utterly on the voluntary compliance of farmers, pesticide applicators, and consumers to use the insecticide exactly according to label instructions — which will not even be developed for another 18 months. This BiOp represents an unacceptable gamble with endangered ecosystems and organisms.

The FWS opinion contradicts the agency’s 2021 BiOp (no longer available on the EPA website), which asserted that, due to registration and use of the insecticide, “78 listed species could be jeopardized, and 23 critical habitats could be adversely modified by the use of malathion.” This final, 2022 BiOp also contradicts the agency’s 2017 conclusion “that 1,284 species would likely be jeopardized by malathion.” According to the Center for Biological Diversity, both that 2021 assertion and this final BiOp used “debunked Trump-era methodology promoted by the pesticide industry” as the bases for the opinion.

Only a week prior to the March 8 release of the final BiOp, FWS’s co-equal agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), issued an updated draft BiOp, which concluded in part: “For malathion, we present draft conclusions that EPA’s action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of 37 species, and likely to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat for 36 species.” It also asserted that malathion (and two notorious cousin organophosphate pesticides) threaten nearly every endangered salmon, sturgeon, and steelhead species in the U.S.

CBD notes that this NMFS BiOp “debunks the Trump methodology that based harm analyses on historic use data known to be incomplete and unreliable. . . . Yet the Fish and Wildlife Service continued to heavily rely on the same historic use data in its analyses to reach conclusions that the pesticide would not harm endangered species.” CBD also writes, “The widely disparate findings by the two agencies were highlighted in harm assessments for bull trout and salmon, biologically similar species that share habitat in the Pacific Northwest. [FWS says] that malathion won’t harm bull trout in Pacific Northwest streams; meanwhile [NMFS] has concluded that the use of the very same chemical in the very same streams is pushing every Pacific salmon to extinction.” CBD’s environmental health director, Lori Ann Burd, commented: “One’s based on sound science, and one’s based on industry-driven politics. [NMFS] is bravely taking a stand to prevent extinctions while [FWS] is continuing to cower to an anti-science, anti-endangered species agenda.”

EPA struck a cheerier note in its press release on the BiOp with the headline, “EPA Takes Steps to Protect Endangered and Threatened Species from Insecticide.” And FWS’s assistant director for ecological services, Gary Frazer, frames the BiOp differently, saying that despite the 2021 BiOp, FWS “worked with EPA, the malathion registrants and USDA to develop general and species-specific conservation measures that significantly reduce many of the effects of malathion use on listed species and their critical habitats.”

FWS insists that implementation of new conservation measures — changes in the text on the pesticide’s label, reductions in the maximum number of allowable applications per year, establishment of buffers from aquatic habitats, and restrictions from application when rain is forecast or when certain crops are in bloom — will eliminate “the problems identified earlier.” EPA has said it will provide online details for protocols that users of malathion should follow, such as no spray zones in areas of critical wildlife habitat. But many of these have been designated as voluntary “guidelines,” rather than compulsory rules.

CBD has decried this final BiOp; Beyond Pesticides joins in this response to EPA’s shocking avoidance of the scientific evidence on malathion. CBD’s Brett Hartl commented, “This is an enormous punt. There’s not a single endangered species that will see anything change on the ground because of this biological opinion for at least 18 months, but probably never.”

CBD’s Lori Ann Burd issued this statement: “The Biden administration has squandered a[n] historic opportunity to rein in the dangerous use of one of the world’s worst neurotoxic pesticides. By ignoring the best available science and choosing to rely on unenforceable promises of good behavior by the pesticide makers rather than real, on-the-ground conservation measures, the Biden administration is condemning wildlife to extinction with a wink and a nod. This decision to cave to powerful special interest groups will do far-reaching harm to our most endangered wildlife.”

To learn more about impacts of malathion and other pesticides on biodiverse and functional organisms, wildlife, and ecosystems, see the work of the Center for Biological Diversity, and Beyond Pesticides’ coverage: Mosquito Control and Pollinator Health, The Truth About Mosquitoes, The Health Effects of Pesticides Used for Mosquito Control, Pesticide Use Harming Key Species Ripples through the Ecosystem, and its Daily News Blog archives on malathion.

Sources: https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/us-fish-and-wildlife-service-refuses-to-protect-any-endangered-species-from-neurotoxic-pesticide-2022-03-08/ and https://apnews.com/article/science-business-animals-wildlife-billings-e3443e0a0ff76211d1e1bb0275f9385b

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

 

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