(Beyond Pesticides, December 18, 2008) The New Zealand’s Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) has announced it will ban the controversial organochlorine pesticide endosulfan, effective January 16, 2009. Endosulfan, already banned in numerous countries including all the European Union countries, is an insecticide used on a wide range of fruits and vegetables and also on athletic fields in New Zealand. Illegal residues have been found in beef destined for South Korea, resulting in enormous costs for New Zealand exporters. Use of endosulfan for agriculture continues in the U.S., despite causing severe health and environmental problems.
A coalition of groups, including the Pesticide Action Network Aotearoa New Zealand (PAN ANZ), Soil and Health Association and Safe Food Campaign, have long campaigned for the banning of endosulfan. Earlier this year, the three organizations carried out a number of residue tests on produce to draw attention to the extent of endosulfan residues, especially in tomatoes.
“We are delighted that ERMA has overturned its earlier ‘proposed’ decision to keep using this pesticide,” stated Meriel Watts, Ph.D., co-coordinator of PAN ANZ. “It would have been deeply embarrassing for New Zealand to continue its use when the pesticide has entered the process for a global ban under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.”
In October the Review Committee of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) agreed that endosulfan meets the screening criteria for a POP, and is now undertaking an assessment preparatory to listing it for a global ban, alongside DDT and its other persistent organochlorine relatives.
“ERMA has made the right decision to get rid of a pesticide that is contaminating the global food supply,” declared Alison White of the Safe Food Campaign. “Endosulfan has been found in body fat, breast milk, placental tissue and umbilical cord blood, largely as a result of residues in food. We would also welcome an urgent reassessment of other hazardous pesticides still used in New Zealand, notably the herbicide 2,4-D and the organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos,” she added. “Like endosulfan, these pesticides can have an effect on hormone function even at minute doses. Chlorpyrifos and 2,4-D have both have been linked to brain damage in young animals, embryos and fetuses.”
“Organic foods produced without such pesticides are the fastest growing sector of the food and beverage trade internationally and have been identified as best value products for New Zealand to be exporting,” said Soil and Health Association’s spokesperson Steffan Browning.
The U.S. EPA is currently considering action on endosulfan in response to petitions submitted in February 2008 followed by a legal brief from the Natural Resources Defense Council, technical letters, and some 13,000 individual signatures on petitions. Last May, concerned scientists and public health professionals issued an open letter calling on the U.S. EPA to cancel all uses of endosulfan on the grounds that it is a highly toxic, bioaccumulative, and persistent chemical. In July a broad coalition of groups represented by Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the U.S. EPA to protect children, farmworkers, and endangered species from endosulfan’s long tail of lingering effects. The coalition also called on EPA to revoke all tolerances for endosulfan even though the agency will not address cancellation until early 2009.
According to the U.S. EPA, annual usage of endosulfan in the U.S. is approximately 1.4 million pounds. Current top uses by volume in the U.S. include cotton, cantaloupe, tomatoes and potatoes. It is registered as an acute toxicity class I (the most toxic) pesticide, and must bear the label “Danger.” Endosulfan affects the nervous system and has been one of the most frequently reported causes of farmworker poisoning. In addition, farmworkers and their children exposed to endosulfan have experienced congenital physical disorders, mental retardation, and death. While farmworkers are the population group most susceptible to the deleterious effects of endosulfan because of their close contact with the toxic chemical, endosulfan also poses a risk to the population at large because of common food, air, and water contamination.
A study released in September confirms that school children in Florida breathe air contaminated by hazardous pesticides, including endosulfan that are drifting from neighboring farms. Air monitoring near South Woods Elementary School in Hastings detected four agricultural chemicals in the air, often at levels that pose unacceptable risks to children. Endosulfan, the pesticide of greatest concern, was found in 87% of the samples, and, on several days, exceeded levels of concern.
Although the Philippines banned the use of endosulfan in 1993, multi-national food companies Dole and Del Monte have maintained exemptions to the ban and continued to use endosulfan in the country. But since the sinking of the ship MV Princess of the Stars, whose cargo hull contained ten tons of endosulfan, these two pineapple growing companies, have agreed to stop using endosulfan on pineapples grown on their plantations in the Philippines beginning next year. The ship capsized and partially sank on June 21 in a typhoon, killing nearly 800 people onboard. In the wake of that tragedy, leaders in the Philippine government called for an end to endosulfan exemptions granted to foreign companies.
Endosulfan is an organochlorine pesticide, in the same family as DDT and lindane, and bioaccumulates and has been found in places as far from point of use as the arctic. Acute poisoning can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, convulsions, and in extreme cases, unconsciousness and even death. It is also a suspected endocrine disruptor, affecting hormones and reproduction in aquatic and terrestrial organisms. At low levels of exposure in the womb have been linked to male reproductive harm, and other birth defects. Preliminary research from the California Department of Public Health into birth records and pesticide data reveal that mothers who were within 500 meters of fields sprayed with organochlorine pesticides during their first trimester of pregnancy are six times more likely to have children with autism compared to mothers who did not live near the fields.
Endosulfan mixed with other insecticides can adversely affect the environment and decimate amphibian populations even if the concentration of the individual chemicals are within limits considered safe, according to University of Pittsburgh research by Rick Relyea, Ph.D. Amphibians are considered an environmental indicator species because of their unique sensitivity to pollutants. Their demise from pesticide exposure could foreshadow the fate of less sensitive animals. Dr. Relyea also discovered that endosulfan is inordinately deadly to leopard frog tadpoles. By itself, the chemical caused 84 percent of the leopard frogs to die. This lethality was previously unknown because current regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) do not require amphibian testing. His results show that endosulfan was not only highly toxic to leopard frogs, but also that it served as the key ingredient of the pesticide mixture that eliminated the bulk of leopard frog tadpoles.
“Endosulfan appears to be about 1,000-times more lethal to amphibians than other pesticides that we have examined,” Dr. Relyea said. “Unfortunately, pesticide regulations do not require amphibian testing, so very little is known about endosulfan’s impact on amphibians, despite being sprayed in the environment for more than five decades.” For most of the pesticides, the concentration administered (2 to 16 parts per billion) was far below the human-lifetime-exposure levels set by EPA and also falls short of the maximum concentrations detected in natural bodies of water. But the research suggests that these low concentrations, which can travel easily by water and wind, can combine into one toxic mixture. The study points out that declining amphibian populations have been recorded in pristine areas far downwind from areas of active pesticide use, and he suggests that the chemical cocktail he describes could be a culprit