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Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Taking a nerve gas agent out of the food chain is a pretty good idea

EPA action on nerve agent used in food applauded, but concerns persist


A proposal by US regulators to issue a ban on most uses of a pesticide that acts as a nerve agent was applauded by health advocates this week, though some warned the proposal doesn’t go far enough.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal targets acephate, a widely used bug-killing chemical whose residues have been found in foods generally considered healthy, such as celery, green beans and tomatoes. The chemical is also found in drinking water.

The agency said it plans to end all uses of acephate on food because it had determined – after more than 50 years of use – that it cannot be certain that “no harm would result” from acephate exposure, particularly from acephate levels in drinking water.

Acephate is part of a class of nerve agent chemicals known as organophosphates that are popular with US farmers who use them to fight pests in their fields. 

But the chemicals have been linked to a range of adverse health effects, particularly in children, such as reduced IQ, attention deficit disorders, and autism spectrum disorders. Acephate, long banned in the European Union, has also been linked to cancer among other health problems.

“We are applauding this. It is long overdue,” said Patti Goldman, a lawyer with Earthjustice, one of several health and environmental advocacy organizations that have pushed the EPA for year to take action on acephate and other organophosphates. “We are really pleased that EPA is proposing to ban all food uses.”

Earthjustice, along with several other health, civil rights, farmworker, and learning disability groups, filed a petition in 2011 calling on the EPA to prohibit all organophosphates.

The EPA action came late last month, coinciding with a report by ProPublica, which revealed how the agency had in the past justified increasing the amount of acephate allowed on food by removing safety margins that are called for in federal law to protect children from pesticide residues in their diets.

The new EPA proposal reiterates that stance, saying that when using “new approach methods” for developmental neurodevelopmental toxicity (DNT NAMs), there was little scientific support for adding those protections for children.

Nonetheless, the EPA said its assessments show current uses of acephate pose both dietary and aggregate risks that are “inconsistent” with safety standards.   

Acephate will not be entirely banned under the EPA proposal. The agency said it would still allow certain applications in forestry, on tree farms, seed orchards, and other similar non-food uses, even though it acknowledged in its proposal that acephate poses a “highly toxic” risk to honey bees, which are key pollinators of important food crops.

There is no guarantee that the EPA won’t alter some aspects of its proposal after public feedback. The agency specifically states that it wants public input on “alternate mitigation” proposals that “may allow for certain registered uses of acephate…”

Strong industry opposition is expected, particularly from the cotton-growing industry. Cotton growers have called acephate a “critical backbone” for the industry.

The agency said it will take public comments on its plan for 60 days.

The agency’s openness to consider mitigation strategies is a concern to health and environmental advocates, who point out that even if all food uses were immediately banned, it would not necessarily quickly eliminate residues in food and water. 

The EPA had already cancelled its approval of acephate for use on green beans in 2011, but the chemical was still found on samples of green beans in the most recent publicly reported tests done by the US Department of Agriculture more than a decade later, according to the USDA’s 2022 pesticide residue report.

In its proposal, the EPA said that “should there be food-uses that can be reconsidered following the comment period,” it had come up with “anticipated” tolerances for what could be new legally allowed levels of acephate on certain food crops, including Brussels sprouts and legumes. The EPA includes tolerances for residues of methamidophos, a metabolite of acephate that is considered by the EPA to be one of the most acutely toxic organophosphate pesticides.

The tolerances for methamidophos would be much higher than what is considered safe for children, according to Chuck Benbrook, an agricultural pesticide residue expert.

“It’s really hard to understand what the EPA is thinking,” Benbrook said. “The EPA has got to recognize that at some point they need to close the door on old high-risk chemistry.”

Earthjustice’s Goldman agreed that there are concerns with the EPA’s proposal and said the group would be outlining those concerns in its public comments to the agency. The health of farmworkers is a key concern as they are most at risk, she said. 

While the EPA move is a solid step toward more protection of public health, the agency needs to work faster to protect people from all organophosphates, Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers, said in a statement. 

“The EPA must ban all organophosphates,” Romero said. “By allowing extensive use of neurotoxic pesticides linked to serious health issues, the EPA is failing to fulfill its duty.”