Events of the past week have thrust to the forefront a little-known pesticide called EDB. Last Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency banned its use on grains in storage. Calm has generally prevailed in the pesticide and food industries, but at least one suit has been filed in response. Some states say EPA restrictions didn't go far enough. And in the middle of it all, consumers have been left somewhat confused.
The concern revolves around ethylene dibromide, or EDB - a pesticide that has been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals.
In announcing the ban, EPA chief William D. Ruckelshaus declared that there was not a health emergency. Many experts agree that any physical risk to consumers would come only from years of consuming EDB-contaminated products. But others have shown concern about such items as pancake and muffin mixes.
A number of states are moving to institute more rigid standards than those drafted by the EPA. New York officials said this week that they would remove all grain products from supermarket shelves in 10 days. The delay would give EPA a chance to adopt stricter standards. Massachusetts issued its own tighter standards this week, but a trade group has filed suit to block the action, claiming the move could lead to possible food shortages. Meanwhile, the Grocery Manufacturers of America is looking into possible responses if it deems the states' actions too strict.
About 90 percent of EDB is used as a fuel additive to leaded gasoline. And of the remainder, which is used on the farm, about 80 to 90 percent was used as an antipest treatment of soil - a practice that EPA banned last September.
Last Friday's action - against use of the fumigant on grain in storage - is expected to have a modest impact on the industry. Only an estimated 2.5 percent of stored US grain has been treated with EDB, says Richard M. Parry, assistant to the administrator for the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). There are at least two alternatives to EDB at about the same cost, he says.
Large supermarket chains and food manufacturers using grains reportedly did not think the ban would cause many problems either.
The real concern is whether EPA will extend the EDB ban to fruit and citrus products. An announcement is expected late this month or in March, an EPA spokesman says.
An immediate ban would mean about $130 million in lost sales and higher costs to the industry, says Robert Keeney of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association. And it could put some lesser fruit growers right out of business.
Papayas, for example.
The root of the papaya problem is that there are currently no alternatives to EDB fumigating. The pesticide is used to combat three species of fruit flies that infest Hawaii, which produces virtually all of the nation's papayas, observers say. The industry and USDA are scrambling to come up with an alternative to EDB.
In the long-term, growers hope that the federal government will allow irradiation of the fruit. But approval of the process, long used in sterilizing surgical equipment, is probably two years away and may not win consumer acceptance, says Bill Helms, associate deputy administrator for the health inspection arm of the US Department of Agriculture.
Currently researchers are experimenting with a wide variety of techniques for treating papayas, including a process in which the fruit is submerged in hot water and then subjected to more than a week of cold storage.
The immediate outlook appears brighter for Florida grapefruit, almost a quarter of which is exported to Japan. Cold treatment - a 26-day process which involves storing the fruit first at 60 degrees F. and then 34 degrees - would be feasible for the Japan journey, a trip which takes about 22 days by ship, Dr. Parry says.
But the procedure is practically prohibitive for much shorter shipments to, say, California. That state does require EDB spraying of certain imported fruits , but has nowhere near the cold-storage capacity necessary for the treatment, Parry says.
Only an estimated 2 percent of all citrus consumed in the United States is treated with EDB. A ban would curtail some out-of-state citrus shipments from Florida; imports of grapefruit, oranges, and tangerines; as well as tropical fruit, observers say.
The ban had little effect on the nation's three manufacturers of EDB, none of which now produce the chemical for agricultural purposes.
''We've given up,'' says Frank Wheeler, director of investor relations at the Great Lakes Chemical Corporation, an EDB manufacturer based in West Lafayette, Ind. Out of annual sales of $230 million just announced, the company only did about $5 million worth of business in EDB for agricultural uses.