EPA stand could trigger the loss of some pesticides
Northwest potato growers are facing the possible loss of a valuable pesticide as the Environmental Protection Agency begins on its schedule to re-register a specific class of chemicals known as carbamates.
Although the pesticide – aldicarb – is primarily used on potatoes, ag leaders are warning that this is just the beginning of a problem other growers will be facing as other chemicals come up for re-registration.
The issue revolves around the use of human testing, which, along with animal testing, has long been a tool in determining safe exposure levels.
EPA announced last December that it will not consider new or existing human testing data in its decision-making on chemical registrations.
While human-data is still allowed to be used by other agencies, such as the federal Food and Drug Administration, some people believe EPA’s stand on this is the beginning of a Bush-administration policy based on opposition to stem-cell and embryo research. If that sort of research is deemed “unethical,” then research done on adult humans might also be considered in that light.
On the immediate legal front, the question is whether EPA’s binding policy on this issue is a final regulatory action. If it is, then opponents say EPA violated notice and public comment requirements.
The Washington State Potato Commission recently filed a “friend-of-the-court” brief in support of a legal petition from several chemical companies and the American Chemical Council. The petition, which is before the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington, D.C., seeks to force the EPA to review its moratorium on the use of certain types of data when it registers chemicals.
“Aldicarb is the first chemical on EPA’s radar screen,” said Pat Boss, executive director of Washington state’s potato commission. “It’s hitting us squarely in the crosshairs. But other chemicals are coming down the pike, and other concerned grower groups are looking at this issue.”
Jim Jesernig, former director of Washington state’s Agriculture Department and now a consultant to the potato commission, said what makes this situation so frustrating is that human testing on aldicarb has already been done under previously allowed standards.
“Everyone, including EPA, agrees that the data is accurate and that it was done ethically,” he said.
The frustrating legal twist in all this is that EPA has decided it will not use any human testing data until it has reviewed the rules under which human testing is allowed.
“You want to make sure the evidence isn’t acquired incorrectly,” Jesernig said. “We have no problem with that. But it’s irrational to throw out good data pending EPA’s review.”
Boss agrees. “A year ago, EPA said it the data was OK,” Boss said. “Now it’s saying it isn’t. The arbitrary method of imposing this moratorium sets a dangerous precedent by the agency.”
John Keeling, spokesman for the National Potato Council, is equally worried and equally frustrated by the situation.
“This should be a decision based on science, not politics,” he said. “It makes no sense not to use data that’s already there. To do that is like sticking your head in the sand.”
Jesernig worries that if EPA won’t accept the existing data based on human testing, then it will have to look at animal testing or some type of computer modeling to determine safety levels.
Boss said EPA has already admitted that if it uses animal testing, the risk factors under consideration would shoot up 500 percent – not an untypical situation when scientists try to correlate animal data with possible effects on humans.
Boss is concerned that the issue won’t be resolved in time for potato planting, which in some areas of the Northwest occurs as early as March.
The court’s decision is expected in four or five months.
According to the commission’s brief, aldicarb is a particularly effective potato pesticide that has no adequate substitutes. It controls nematodes, the Colorado potato beetle, leafhoppers, the green peach aphid and mites. It also provides full-season pest control on early-season varieties of Washington potatoes.
Without aldicarb, spring varieties of potatoes require an at-planting product and at least two foliar sprays. Summer or fall varieties need up to six foliar sprays to control aphids.
Without aldicarb, the use of fumigants for nematode control would also increase.
However, unlike aldicarb, fumigants cannot provide insect control. Because aldicarb is applied into the furrow as a granule, it does not drift or volatize like foliar sprays. And because it is covered by the soil, it significantly reduces the potential for worker exposure.
On the financial side of the ledger, because fewer applications are required, the use of aldicarb at planting significantly lowers pesticide costs.
Potatoes are the second largest crop grown in Washington state, with an annual farm-gate value of $500 million. A study of the economic impacts of the state’s potato industry shows that potato farming and related processing contributes $3.01 billion annually to the state’s economy.
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