Nearing the end of a 10-year review of all pesticides, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to ban a farm chemical that has tainted water and proved deadly to birds, but the agency approved continued use of 32 other widely used insecticides.
Under a 1996 food-safety statute, the EPA had to evaluate all 231 active ingredients in pesticides using new safety guidelines focused on the risks to children and the effects of cumulative exposure. Thursday was the deadline set by the statute, though a decision on one controversial chemical is not expected for six weeks.
The EPA proposed to phase out all uses of carbofuran, a farm chemical that is lethal to birds in even small doses. Numerous birds of prey and other species have died from exposure since the chemical's introduction in 1967, according to the National Audubon Society.
The EPA concluded that "there are considerable risks associated with carbofuran in food and drinking water, risks to pesticide applicators, and risks to birds that are exposed in treated fields."
The president of the American Bird Conservancy, George Fenwick, called the decision "a victory for science and the environment."
"Removal of this pesticide will save tens of thousands of birds, including bald eagles, hawks and migratory songbirds," he said. "Carbofuran's toxicity to wildlife made it one of America's most harmful licensed products, and we are delighted that EPA has done the right thing."
Thirty-two other pesticides -- including malathion, used widely in California -- were approved late Wednesday for continued use. All are organophosphates, a class that some scientific studies have linked to cancer, fertility problems and damage to developing brains.
Some EPA and other federal scientists have complained that the EPA bowed to pressure from pesticide makers and rushed its safety review of many chemicals. The leaders of nine unions representing 9,000 federal scientists, risk managers and related employees have urged EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson to prohibit organophosphates and several other pesticides.
In a May letter to Johnson, they accused the EPA of skipping many steps in assessing the dangers, "in violation of the principles of scientific integrity and objectivity." They were particularly concerned about whether the EPA was adequately assessing potential neurological effects on fetuses and children.
"Our colleagues in the pesticide program feel besieged by political pressure exerted by agency officials perceived to be too closely aligned with the pesticide industry and former EPA officials now representing the pesticide and agricultural community," the letter said.
Environmental advocates say the letter proves that there is serious dissent and concern about political interference within the EPA and other federal agencies.
"It is amazing how they came together in this precedent-setting way to say that the system is not working, that the administration is being inappropriately influenced by industry and making decisions that are not protective of human health, especially children and the unborn," said Margaret Reeves, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America, based in San Francisco. "It's really telling of internal problems at EPA that need to be addressed in a systematic way."
Johnson disputed the scientists' claims, saying the EPA was "maintaining the highest ethical and scientific standards in its pesticide review."
The EPA's top-ranking officials called the review "the most comprehensive and historic overhaul of the nation's pesticide and food safety laws in decades."
Johnson said in a statement: "Whether planting crops, debugging a home, working in the garden or just sitting down at the dinner table, Americans everywhere can now be assured the pesticides used in the U.S. meet the highest health standards in the world."
The director of the EPA pesticide program, Jim Jones, said in an interview Thursday that the agency was "confident," after an eight-year review of scientific data detailing health risks and exposures, that the organophosphates approved this week were "safe." Some changes were ordered to limit people's exposure, such as prohibitions on some crops and reductions in the amounts used, he said.
Seventeen other organophosphate pesticides -- including the popular household chemicals diazinon and chlorpyrifos, used to control ants, fleas and other bugs -- have already been banned or heavily restricted during the Congress-ordered review.
But the EPA missed its deadline under the Food Quality Protection Act for a decision on the controversial chemical aldicarb, one of the nation's most widely used insecticides. Aldicarb and carbofuran are both carbamates, another class of compounds that the union leaders' letter urged be prohibited.
Jones said that the aldicarb decision would be about six weeks late and that rulings on four related carbamate pesticides would soon follow.
Earlier this week, the EPA announced a ban on lindane, used to treat seeds. Lindane, which builds up in the environment and human bodies, had already been outlawed in 52 countries.
If the carbofuran proposal becomes final after a 60-day public comment period, the ban would be immediate for its main uses: alfalfa, corn, cotton, potatoes and rice. The EPA would allow a four-year phase-out for six minor crops -- artichokes, spinach for seed, cucumbers, chili peppers, sunflowers and pine seedlings -- so farmers could find effective alternatives.
Representatives of the only carbofuran maker, FMC Corp., an international chemical manufacturer based in Philadelphia, were unavailable for comment Thursday.
In California, about 30,000 pounds of carbofuran were applied to crops, primarily alfalfa, in 2004, the latest year for which figures were available. The volumes in use today are about 10% of what they were a decade ago, said spokesman Glenn Brank of the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.