Control of Farm Chemicals Needs Overhaul

A generation after Americans learned about the risks of pesticides, environmentalists, farmers, and manufacturers still struggle to find balance between bountiful harvests and protecting public health

ON the morning of June 30, 1994, the United States Environmental Protection Agency was scheduled to issue a suspension order for a highly toxic pesticide known by the trade name of Phosdrin.

Rather than contest the EPA's decision, Amvac Chemical Corporation of California, the manufacturer of Phosdrin, decided on the evening of June 29 to inform the EPA that it would voluntarily halt production of the chemical, and withdraw registration of it from EPA's list of pesticides. At the time an attorney for Amvac said it was an ``economic decision.''

But behind the EPA ban, and Amvac's response, is a controversial and complex jumble of laws and critical health concerns over pesticide use in the United States.

``We do believe that the nation's pesticide laws need to be reformed,'' said EPA Administrator Carol Browner early this year. Hardly anyone disagrees. But getting from here to there is a rubble-strewn path.

Most experts say pesticide laws are inconsistent, the regulatory process is too lengthy, and pesticide data are often open to differing interpretations. Also, an overworked EPA is able to assess only a small portion of pesticides new or old each year.

To farmers and growers, all faced with growing fragile crops in fickle weather with crafty insects everywhere, pesticides are a valuable tool - even to many growers who are as concerned about the earth as environmental activists are.

As a last resort, on behalf of thousands of farmers who use Phosdrin, Amvac could have engaged in a costly legal battle with the EPA. Chemically Phosdrin is identified as ``melvinphos,'' a member of a class of chemicals known as organophosphates. Phosdrin is so toxic that it requires a skull and crossbones on the label. In higher animals it is rapidly absorbed through the skin, and it can disrupt the nervous system and cause muscle paralysis.

It also kills insects and does little harm to the soil. After being sprayed on crops, Phosdrin's toxicity breaks down relatively quickly and leaves little residue in the soil, according to the EPA.

But to the EPA, the evidence is overwhelming that Phosdrin is ``one of the most toxic pesticides registered in the United States.'' Relying on data gathered by California state agricultural officials, and from incidents in the state of Washington, the EPA asserts that more than 600 farm workers have been poisoned over the last decade, with five deaths linked to Phosdrin.

``Basically our position was that this stuff was so hot, that even when it was handled correctly it was still too high of a risk,'' says Richard Dumas, a pesticide-review supervisor at EPA in Washington, D.C.

Phosdrin has been used by farmers and growers for years in California, Washington, Texas, Arizona, and Florida to kill aphids, leaf miners, mites, and other insects on fruits and vegetables. When it is used, the handler must wear chemical-resistant overalls, gloves, and boots, a respirator, and a face shield. Handlers must be certified and follow instructions on the label.

``Problems can arise when the temperature is really hot,'' says Pat Weddle, a pest-management consultant from Placerville, Calif. ``Workers will drop the respirator or not wear the gloves in an effort to stay cool.''

`No valid data'

Eric Wintemute, president and CEO of Amvac, denies the validity of the data on poisoning of workers with Phosdrin. ``There never has been a death from Phosdrin,'' he says, contradicting the EPA, ``and where they talk about ... worker exposure problems, there is no collection of data that is worthwhile to make those judgment calls.''

He says the data from California are questionable. ``During a season, there can be many applications of different molecules, and it is impossible to distinguish any one as the contributing factor [in worker health problems].''

When Amvac took over distribution of Phosdrin in 1989 from Dupont, it conducted training programs in the handling of Phosdrin, and limited the number of distributors to better control use of the product. At the end of 1993, the company proposed to EPA that handling of the chemical be done only through a closed and sealed system with blood monitoring, a test to determine exposure of handlers.

But federal law demands that the EPA assess the risks and benefits of banning a pesticide. In deciding against Phosdrin, EPA's conclusion was clear: Phosdrin was too dangerous to workers no matter what Amvac proposed. Between 300,000 and 400,000 pounds of Phosdrin were being used annually. By October, Amvac must submit a recall plan to EPA, and all use of Phosdrin on crops must end by Feb. 28, 1995.

In testimony before a State of Washington Department of Agriculture hearing on Oct. 7, 1993, Marion Moses from the Pesticide Education Center in San Francisco said, ``There were occupational deaths from mevinphos in California in 1961 and 1964, and in Texas in 1978.... The difficulty with mevinphos is that there is little or no margin of safety. The tiniest lapse in technique, the most minor adjustment of a mask ... can have disastrous consequences.''

According to many growers, the consequences of not using Phosdrin can be detrimental to crops. ``If you get a late-season infestation of aphids, especially on leafy vegetables, you're in a world of hurt because you don't have anything left to use,'' says Dan Botts of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Minimal pesticide use

Through more sophiscated pest-control, now practiced by many farmers, there are ways to minimize pesticide use and not cause severe disruption in market prices or the farmer's ability to compete. Even EPA recognizes the need for alternatives.

``Alternative pest-control methods and use reduction is the buzz word of the day,'' Mr. Dumas says. ``We are trying to head more toward suggesting nonchemicals as possible alternatives.''

With about 850 million pounds of pesticides dusted or sprayed on crops annually in the US, change may hinge on regulatory reform and continuing research that leads to ways to control insects without pesticides.

``Congress has been gridlocked on pesticide reform for the last 30 years,'' Mr. Weddle says. ``The old laws don't fit anymore.''

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