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Toxic Worm In the Apples

The EPA faces a lawsuit over its insistence on keeping a powerful pesticide that sickens workers on the market.
 
 
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One morning in 1995, Juan Angulo showed up for work at an apple orchard in Pasco, Wash. owned by a large company called Broetje Orchards. His supervisor wasn't around, so when time came, Angulo and the rest of his crew got busy trimming apple trees.

"About a half hour later, my nose started running," he said in a recent interview. "Then I got a rash on my arms."

As Angulo worked, his head started pounding, his stomach started churning and the rash worsened. He and about 18 fellow trimmers soon went to the emergency room where they learned the cause of their sickness: exposure to azinphos-methyl, a pesticide derived from WWII nerve gas that goes by the friendlier sounding brand name, Guthion. Deadly to humans in small doses (a third of a tablespoon), Guthion, when sprayed on fruit trees, is adept at killing insects that threaten the multi-billion-dollar apple and pear industries.

Prompted by such stories, Earthjustice, the National Resources Defense Council and Farmworkers Justice Fund are suing the EPA over its decision to keep the popular pesticide on the market.

The environmental evil-o-meter has long registered the noxious coziness between federal regulators and the pesticide industry. This suit alleges the EPA gave thumbs up to Guthion based on scientific data generated by the pesticide industry without ever subjecting the data to review by independent bodies. The suit also says the EPA held certain data from public view and conducted a lopsided cost benefit analysis that was supposed to weigh Guthion's economic benefit against its risk to people like Juan.

Moreover, the EPA didn't consider safer alternatives that could do Guthion's job without it.

"This administration especially is perfectly happy to decide that using unsafe chemicals is okay," says Shelley Davis, an attorney for Farmworkers Justice Fund.

Davis, a widely respected Beltway activist who has for years tracked federal regulation of pesticides, is preparing for a key hearing on Oct 14. EPA attorneys are trying to get the suit dismissed.

"Guthion is the first time that I am aware of that the EPA used the unreviewed industry data generated by the Agricultural Re-entry Task Force (a group of pesticide manufacturers)," says Davis. "Previously, they evaluated field workers' risk using a different methodology. The old approach required each chemical manufacturer to conduct tests with its own pesticide to determine the effects. Now, the EPA has accepted the data generated by the ARTF to serve as a global substitute for all pesticides, even ones not specifically tested, and is using this generic data in its formula instead of product-specific data."

Her main gripe, however, is that no independent body reviewed the data used by the EPA. What's more, the one independent researcher Davis knows of who has seen the data thinks it is flawed. (That person, a university researcher, did not respond to an interview request for this article).

Much of the Guthion case is distilled to disagreements over the methods and data used in the EPA's mind-numbingly complicated formulas for determining the risk factors of worker exposure.

Azinphos-methyl was first registered as a pest control 35 years ago. Later the Food Quality Protection Act required the EPA to take a second look at azinphos-methyl and other so-called organophosphates (which are the most implicated class of pesticides in symptomatic illnesses). Three years ago, in 2001, EPA evidently thought the chemical was enough of an ass-kicker to outlaw 28 of its crop uses and phase out seven more. However, eight crop uses – including Guthion's primary use in apple orchards – were allowed to slide, something Bayer AG and Makhteshim-Agan Industries, the makers of Guthion, no doubt found worthy of a champagne toast.

"The new measures announced today on azinphos-methyl and phosmet will help decrease pesticide exposure and provide additional health protection for agricultural workers," Stephen L. Johnson, an EPA administrator, said at the time. "The best scientific expertise has been incorporated into these new precautions, and new health effects monitoring of agricultural workers will be required to determine if it is necessary to impose additional restrictions. Today's decision also provides time for farmers to make the transition to safer alternatives for the uses that are critical for crop production."

Guthion is the primary weapon apple growers deploy against their biggest enemy, the codling moth, a coin-sized bug that can chew through entire orchards. To fight the codling moth, Guthion is sprayed on some 73 percent of apple orchards in the country, says Nancy Foster, president of the U.S. Apple Association.

Foster says growers use Guthion because it is a highly effective "broad-spectrum" insecticide – meaning it kills more than just the codling moth. Growers sometimes use "softer" alternatives such as sprayable pheromones which can disrupt insect mating habits, but none offers the power Guthion does, so it ranks as the primary crop protection tool.

"Guthion is extremely important for growers who are committed to producing a high-quality apple that doesn't include insect damage," Foster says.

The environmentalists' latest suit challenges the EPA's decision to keep those primary uses of Guthion in play.

The suit's core claim is that EPA used a flawed risk-benefit analysis that accounted for economic benefits to crop producers but not the full harm to workers and the environment. In that analysis, the suit claims, the EPA relied on assumptions "that run counter to published articles and other data made available to EPA in public comments." The agency also used new industry data to estimate worker exposure rates allegedly without making the data and methods available to the public during the public comment period.

In the annoying vernacular of pesticide regulation, an important way of expressing the level of sketchiness workers face when dealing with a chemical is called the MOE, or margin of exposure. For the EPA, any pesticide that registers a MOE above 100 is good to go. Anything below 100 spells danger for workers like Juan Angulo.

Past EPA studies highlighted dangers and scenarios when Guthion exposure fell below 100. In 2001, for example, an EPA report sexily titled "Interim Registration Eligibility Decision for Azinphos-Methyl" showed that foods sprayed with Guthion offer no risks by the time they reach hungry consumers. For workers, the agency said, it was as different story. The EPA report reads:

"Even after factoring in exposure reductions provided by closed mixing and loading systems, closed cab application equipment, and all feasible personal protective equipment, safety margins (margins of exposure or MOEs) still fall well below the target of 100 for the majority of pesticide handler exposure scenarios considered."

In the end, the EPA has essentially cut Guthion an exception to the MOE demand of 100, says Matthew Keifer, a medical doctor and researcher at the University of Washington.

The EPA stands by its decisions.

Few people realize that all pesticide decisions are made based on industry data because instead of using peer-reviewed data, EPA's pesticide program uses studies conducted by the pesticide industry. But regulators and even some heavy EPA critics say the studies are governed by precise protocols developed in a reasonably public process over a period of years.

Anne Lindsay, deputy office director for the EPA's Office of Pesticides Programs, said in the case of Guthion, the data was independently reviewed by EPA scientists, Canadian environmental authorities and state environmental regulators in California, all of whom had a part in the Guthion reassessment.

She also said she is unaware of any major deviations from past practices that occurred during the Guthion decision, though she has not fully reviewed every aspect of the case.

"The EPA doesn't use cookie cutter approaches," Lindsay said, when asked about the MOE demand of 100. "As we worked on Guthion we found the need to do what was relevant for Guthion. One hundred is a benchmark and we try to ensure that that the risks associated with a given exposure meet that 100. But that isn't what I would call a precise measurement. The decision is based in risk benefit, which is built into the law. If there is a high set of benefits that margin can be less than 100."

Lindsay stressed that in this case of Guthion, worker risks were mitigated by other demands such as biomonitoring requirements and expanding the time workers must stay out of a sprayed field.

As the case moves through federal court, toxicologists, regulators, activists and lawyers continue to fight over the mind-taxing details.

As for Juan Angulo, he doesn't work in Washington's apple orchards anymore, due to an unrelated workplace accident. But nearly a decade after his initial exposure to Guthion, he says he still suffers from headaches – as do many other of his coworkers who were exposed.

Kelly Hearn is a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and a former science and technology writer for UPI.