Originally published in and reprinted with permission of The Orlando Sentinel.
Why is EPA Considering Lethal Pesticides for Florida Citrus?
Few pesticides have raised more red flags across the world in recent years than an insecticide called aldicarb.
This neurotoxic poison is a notorious polluter of groundwater and has been shown to have an extremely high risk of causing developmental harm in children and infants.
Aldicarb is now banned in more than 125 countries, and is one of only three dozen pesticides among thousands worldwide designated as “extremely hazardous” by the World Health Organization.
Those concerns were spotlighted in 1985 when more than 1,300 people fell ill in California after eating aldicarb contaminated watermelons, causing the largest U.S. outbreak of food-borne pesticide illness ever documented.
Those dangers are why the Environmental Protection Agency successfully pushed to end most U.S. uses of the neurotoxin over a decade ago.
But in a stunning reversal highlighted in recent media reports, the EPA has quietly begun the process of considering new uses of aldicarb on Florida oranges and grapefruits.
Most troubling is that the current review comes after top managers in the Trump EPA pushed agency scientists to come up with scientific rationale showing that aldicarb could be safely used on citrus, according to emails between EPA staffers recently obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity via the Freedom of Information Act.
The emails mirror concerns outlined in whistleblower complaints by EPA scientists in 2021 that they were routinely pressured to underplay public health risks posed by some chemicals.
The about-face by the agency in response to pressure from the citrus and pesticide industries is disturbing because the emails reveal intense top-down pressure on EPA scientists to find a way to support a predetermined outcome – approving aldicarb’s expanded use.
This change stands in sharp contrast to the EPA’s success in 2010 in limiting virtually all U.S. aldicarb uses after agency scientists estimated that some children and infants may have been exposed, for years, to amounts of aldicarb up to eight times greater than safe levels.
Despite those alarming findings, in the waning days of the Trump administration the EPA approved use of aldicarb on Florida oranges and grapefruits. That approval was subsequently overturned by a federal court. Aldicarb was also rejected by Florida regulators who found the pesticide posed “an unacceptable risk to human, animal and environmental health in Florida.”
Considering EPA scientists’ concerns that drinking water could be polluted with high levels of aldicarb and that levels in fruit could be so high as to be unsafe for young children, the agency should have immediately rejected the application for new use on citrus.
The intense pressure from chemical industry lobbyists and elected officials, which spurred the EPA’s pesticide office to find a way to support wider uses of the pesticide in 2021, is likely continuing.
Now the Biden EPA has taken the first step toward approving the new aldicarb uses.
Regardless of which political party is in charge, the EPA has a well-deserved reputation for approving harmful pesticides rejected by other nations.
As a result, every year in this country we use more than 300 million pounds annually of pesticides banned in the European Union. We use 26 million pounds and 40 million pounds of pesticides annually banned in Brazil and China, respectively. And India is considering banning 27 pesticides we use over 100 million pounds of each year.
A dangerous argument that may ultimately help push through an aldicarb approval by the EPA is that, since aldicarb is banned everywhere else, imported fruit and fruit juice won’t have any aldicarb contamination, ultimately “diluting” exposure among U.S. consumers.
It’s that kind of twisted regulatory logic that reveals why the EPA rarely cancels or severally limits use of any pesticides.
Without question, the Biden administration has taken historic steps in pesticide safety assessments, including the EPA’s first-ever push to follow the Endangered Species Act and assess pesticides’ harms to protected species.
But the fact that the EPA is even considering expanding uses of a nasty poison like aldicarb vividly exposes a pesticide office that continues to prioritize the wishes of the pesticide industry over protecting people and the environment.
Until the EPA untethers itself from pesticide brokers and routinely demonstrates a firm commitment to following the science, it will continue to be difficult to trust the safety of virtually any pesticide it approves.
Rejecting the reckless proposal to expand use of this dangerous pesticide in Florida would be an important step in the right direction.
Kyla Bennett is PEER’s Director of Science Policy and the Director of PEER’s New England/Mid-Atlantic field office. She is a scientist and attorney formerly with U.S. EPA.
Nathan Donley is a former cancer researcher who is now environmental health science director at the Center for Biological Diversity.