In Surprise Move, EPA Bans Carbofuran Residue on Food

The pesticide carbofuran is used more heavily abroad than domestically, including on coffee, shown in Costa Rica.
The pesticide carbofuran is used more heavily abroad than domestically, including on coffee, shown in Costa Rica. (By Kent Gilbert -- Associated Press)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2008

The Environmental Protection Agency announced yesterday that it will no longer allow residue of the toxic pesticide carbofuran on domestic or imported food, a decision that would effectively remove the chemical from the U.S. market.

EPA officials said they made the decision -- which surprised environmentalists as well as the pesticide's sole U.S. manufacturer -- on the grounds that the chemical residue poses an unacceptable safety risk to toddlers.

"This is a product that we don't believe meets our high standards for the general population, particularly for small children who are more sensitive," said James Gulliford, EPA associate administrator for the office of prevention, pesticides and toxic substances. "While there is little exposure today [to the pesticide], we don't think there's a need, a reason for any exposure."

A million pounds of carbofuran are applied each year in the United States, affecting less than 1 percent of the nation's farmed acres, according to the EPA, but it is used more heavily in developing countries on crops including rice, bananas, coffee and sugar cane. The EPA had indicated earlier this year that it would not apply the ban to imported food, but yesterday it said it will.

"This could have major ramifications around the world, as there are many countries that export rice, coffee and bananas to the U.S.," said Michael Fry, director of conservation advocacy for the American Bird Conservancy. "It's one of the most widely used pesticides in the world."

The Conservancy and the Natural Resources Defense Council, another environmental group, had petitioned the agency to ban carbofuran residue on food on the grounds that the neurotoxin threatens animals as well as humans. Over the past four decades, the chemical has killed millions of wild birds, including golden and bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and migratory songbirds, the groups said.

The EPA indicated two years ago that it intended to cancel carbofuran's registration, a different regulatory path that determines whether a product can be sold in the United States, because of the hazards it poses to workers who apply it as well as to birds and other wildlife.

But manufacturer FMC has been fighting the move in federal court, arguing that the agency must prove that the chemical represents a public danger. FMC is the first pesticide manufacturer in 20 years to resist cancellation of a registered pesticide.

Yesterday's decision -- which is subject to a 60-day comment period -- could take carbofuran off the market sooner than the registration cancellation process, which remains in progress, but FMC spokesman James Fitzwater said his company will push to keep selling the product.

"It does give us an opportunity to prove this product is safe from a dietary risk standpoint," Fitzwater said in an interview. "We think we have a good case."

The EPA's scientific assessment found that the neurotoxin exceeded the agency's safety standard for children ages 1 to 2 by 200 percent, said Steven Bradbury, director of the EPA's special review and re-registration division.

Bradbury said that the pesticide residues are in such small concentrations that they would rarely pose a risk, but that they could if certain foods were eaten in combination.

"If these exposures happen, they don't meet our rigorous standards," he said.

In proposing the ban, the EPA also overruled the Agriculture Department, which argued in written comments that federal officials should consider the benefits associated with keeping the pesticide on the market. Gulliford, however, said the EPA does not weigh such factors when judging the risk posed by food products.

"It's not a benefit-risks decision, it's a risk-based decision," he said in an interview, adding that the agency hoped to have the pesticide off the market before next year's growing season. "This is part of our process to ensure we have the safest food supply of any country in the world."

There is no question that carbofuran exacts a toll on wildlife: A 2006 EPA document examining the pesticide's environmental effects found that if a flock of mallard ducks wandered into an alfalfa field within a week after the chemical was applied, 84 percent of the birds would die. The pesticide also kills bees, which have experienced an unexplained massive population collapse in recent years.

"I was surprised and pleased that EPA did the right thing and followed the science," said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is really a big one for workers, birds and bees."

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