In December, 1980, the Environmental Protection Agency said ethylene dibromide should be phased out during the next five years as an agricultural fumigant because it was suspected of causing cancer. The Reagan administration backed off, however, when the Mediterranean fruit fly infestation threatened to wreak economic havoc in California where EDB was being widely used to kill fly larvae.

When EPA retreated, several unions asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency standard for EDB. The agency drafted one, but OSHA chief Thorne G. Auchter wouldn't approve it, citing the agency's poor record in defending such standards in court. Instead, Auchter directed OSHA to seek public comments about an EDB standard. The agency got a quick response from J. Donald Millar, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, who urged Auchter to reconsider and issue an emergency standard. Millar warned Auchter that it could take from two to five years to institute a standard through regular channels and cautioned that there is "rapidly growing scientific evidence" to suggest EDB is carcinogenic and mutagenic.

OSHA apparently has remained unconvinced. It extended the public comment period first for 30 days and then for another 60 days to May 31. Of the dozen or so individuals and groups that have filed comments, only one asked for an extension. The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, which opposes the standard, said it needed more time to pull information together.