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Insecticide To Be Banned, Decades After Poisoning Thousands

A farm chemical that caused the worst known outbreak of pesticide poisoning in North America is being phased out. But why did it take so long?
 
 
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Twenty-five years after the worst known outbreak of pesticide poisoning in U.S. history, an agreement is announced that phases out all uses of aldicarb. Manufacturer Bayer CropScience agreed to stop producing the highly toxic insecticide, used to kill pests on cotton and several food crops, by 2015 in all world markets. Use on citrus and potatoes will be prohibited after next year. New EPA documents show that babies and children under 5 can ingest levels of the insecticide through food and drinking water that exceed limits that the agency considers safe. “Aldicarb no longer meets our rigorous food safety standards and may pose unacceptable dietary risks, especially to infants and young children,” the EPA said. At least 2,000 people fell ill from eating California watermelons illegally contaminated with aldicarb on the Fourth of July in 1985. “It is good the revocation is happening; it is a shame it took 20 years,” said Richard Jackson, chair of environmental health sciences at UCLA, who was a top state health official during the outbreak.

A farm chemical with an infamous history -- causing the worst known outbreak of pesticide poisoning in North America -- is being phased out under an agreement announced Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Manufacturer Bayer CropScience agreed to stop producing aldicarb, a highly toxic insecticide used to kill pests on cotton and several food crops, by 2015 in all world markets. Use on citrus and potatoes will be prohibited after next year.

Tuesday’s announcement comes 25 years after a highly publicized outbreak of aldicarb poisoning sickened more than 2,000 people who had eaten California watermelons.

New EPA documents show that babies and children under five can ingest levels of the insecticide through food and water that exceed levels the agency considers safe.

“Aldicarb no longer meets our rigorous food safety standards and may pose unacceptable dietary risks, especially to infants and young children,” the EPA said in announcing the agreement.

For infants, consumption of aldicarb residue -- mostly in potatoes, citrus and water – can reach 800 percent higher than the EPA’s level of concern for health effects, while children between the ages of one and five can ingest 300 percent more than the level of concern, according to an Aug. 4 EPA memo.

In a statement, Bayer CropScience said Tuesday that its decision to agree to phase out aldicarb came after EPA’s new report calculated the health risks to children.

The company said it “respects the oversight authority of the EPA and is cooperating with them” even though it “does not fully agree” with the agency's new assessment. Bayer CropScience stressed that the analysis “does not mean that aldicarb poses an actual risk” to consumers.

One of the most acutely hazardous pesticides still used in the United States, aldicarb is a carbamate insecticide that is taken up by roots and carried into the fruit of a plant. High levels of aldicarb can have neurotoxic effects; it inhibits an enzyme that controls the transmission of messages to nerves.

“After thousands of poisonings, it is mind-boggling that aldicarb is still in use,” said Steve Scholl-Buckwald, managing director of the environmental group Pesticide Action Network North America. “The wheels just grind so, so slowly. It never should have been registered in the first place back in 1970 and by the mid-1980s there was sufficient data to suggest it should have been taken off the market.”

On the Fourth of July in 1985, three people who had eaten watermelon in Oakland, Calif., rapidly became ill with symptoms that included vomiting, diarrhea, muscle twitches and abnormally slow heart rates. At the same time, people in Oregon were falling ill, too, and tests of watermelons found extremely high levels of aldicarb, which was illegal to use on all melons.

 
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