A highly toxic pesticide that is one of the last such holdouts from the 1950s is being banned in the United States after a lengthy review by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA decided not to renew the registration of lindane, an insecticide used to treat seeds for wheat, corn, oats, rye, barley and sorghum crops. In response, the manufacturers agreed to cease sales in the United States, EPA officials said Tuesday.
Lindane is a chlorinated pesticide, much like DDT and similar compounds that were outlawed in most of the world in the 1970s; it is already banned in 52 countries. It does not break down in the environment, so it builds up in food chains and in human bodies, and scatters globally via the oceans and air, reaching even people and animals in the Arctic.
For years, environmentalists have sought a ban in the U.S., especially since Mexico and Canada have already acted. The United Nations was considering adding lindane to a global treaty phasing out chemicals considered the world's most hazardous.
Kristin Shafer of Pesticide Action Network North America, an activist group based in San Francisco, said Tuesday that she was "pleased EPA has finally done the right thing."
Jim Jones, director of the EPA's pesticide program, said the agency weighed lindane's toxicity and its persistence in the environment against its "very few benefits for users," considering the fact that safer alternatives for treating corn, wheat and other grain seeds were available.
"We're making a decision today that I feel very good about," he said. "Most of the uses were deleted a long time ago, and the EPA has taken a number of actions culminating in this one today, where the remaining uses are being voluntarily canceled."
The EPA has acknowledged the hazards of lindane for several years, calling it "quite toxic to humans." It is classified as a possible carcinogen, and in high doses it damages the human nervous system, liver and immune system.
The only remaining U.S. use of lindane is for prescription shampoos and lotion treatments for head lice and scabies, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, not the EPA. Lindane prescriptions have been banned in California since 2002, and most U.S. doctors no longer prescribe them.
"It's good to the see the U.S. finally stepping up to the plate" on farm use, said Ann Heil, a supervising engineer at the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts who has researched lindane and lobbied the Legislature for the state ban on lindane prescriptions. But, she said, "it is baffling why the federal government has now banned uses of lindane for farming, but still allows it to be put on children's heads."
The decision to end lindane's use as an agricultural pesticide is the culmination of a 10-year review of the more than 200 active ingredients in pesticides that was ordered by Congress in 1996 under the Food Quality Protection Act.
The law transformed the EPA's safety standards for evaluating pesticide risks, especially to children, and has led to changes in the allowable uses of many chemicals.
"Virtually every chemical that went through that process had some meaningful changes in the way they could be used," Jones said. Seventeen popular chemicals have been banned since the review began.
Lindane has been used on U.S. crops since 1950. The EPA heavily restricted it in 1983, limiting its use to grain seeds to prevent pests from eating the plants. It is banned in the European Union, Japan and several other Asian countries, South Africa, and much of Latin and South America.
If the companies had not voluntarily agreed to cease U.S. distribution, the process of the EPA canceling its registration could have dragged on for years, Jones said. Instead, it will become effective in about two months. Farmers can still legally use lindane products already in stock.
Up to 230,000 pounds of lindane have been used yearly in the United States, mostly to treat corn and wheat seed. California growers already were scaling back its use, reporting application of only 775 pounds in 2004, compared with nearly 5,000 pounds four years earlier, according to state records.