EPA surprise: Agency seeks to cancel approval of toxic pesticide

And the company that makes the chemical, Bayer CropScience, refuses to agree.

Of all the hot-button agricultural chemicals we hear about, flubendiamide is not on the top of many awareness lists. It’s not the most toxic and it’s only used on a quarter of United States tobacco crops and 14 percent of almonds, peppers and watermelons. But it’s making big news now.

As Dan Charles reports for NPR, flubendiamide is now at the center of a public dispute between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the chemical’s maker, Bayer CropScience. “That dispute is arousing fear in the pesticide industry – and hope among activists who are pushing for the EPA to regulate pesticides more tightly,” writes Charles.

Bayer was given EPA approval for flubendiamide in 2008 on a “conditional” basis – whereby further studies would be required to assure that the chemical was safe, but that allowed the company to begin selling the product in the meantime.

Critics of toxic pesticide use find fault (understandably) with the EPA’s reliance on this process as it has become an easy loophole for companies to start selling their wares without really proving their safety. It’s commonly held that the EPA seldom follows up.

But lo and behold, from an EPA press statement:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is issuing a notice of intent to cancel all Bayer CropScience, LP and Nichino America, Inc., flubendiamide products that pose a risk to aquatic invertebrates that are important to the health of aquatic environments.

Required studies showed flubendiamide – the active ingredient in Bayer’s Belt and Nichino’s Tourismo and Vetica insecticides – breaks down into a more highly toxic material that is harmful to species that are an important part of aquatic food chains, especially for fish, and is persistent in the environment. EPA concluded that continued use of the product would result in unreasonable adverse effects on the environment. EPA requested a voluntary cancellation in accordance with the conditions of the original registration.

Which is why this news is big. Charles writes, “The pesticide industry fears – and anti-pesticide groups hope – that many other chemicals, also approved conditionally, soon could face increased EPA scrutiny as well.”

“We’re really encouraged that the EPA went for cancellation” of flubendiamide’s approval, rather than a lengthy process known as a ‘special review,'” says Kristin Schafer, policy director at the Pesticide Action Network, or PAN.

Which is indeed encouraging. Now if only Bayer CropScience would pay heed to the EPA. But so far, they are refusing to stop sales of the chemical. According to a statement, the company has “refused a request by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to voluntarily cancel the uses of flubendiamide in the United States and instead will seek a review of the product’s registration in an administrative law hearing.”

They note that the EPA exaggerates the risk and removing the product from the market would “deny farmers a valuable tool in battling damaging insects.” Of course, try telling that to the snails and crabs and other creatures who succumb to accumulations of flubendiamide and who play an integral role in aquatic ecosystems.

What will happen next? Will there be a showdown between the EPA and Bayer CropScience? As the plot thickens, it would be nice to see the EPA take off the gloves and start fighting for the fish.