August 4, 2008

Popular Pesticides More Dangerous Than You Think

By Ryan Robinson

Some pesticides very commonly used by homeowners and farmers alike may not be as safe as previously thought.

A first-time analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data by the Center for Public Integrity found certain pesticides believed to be not nearly as toxic as most actually cause a high percentage of poisonings and some deaths.

CPI reviewed the past 10 years' worth of more than 90,000 adverse- reaction reports filed with the EPA by pesticide manufacturers.

The center found that pesticides called pyrethrins and pyrethroids together accounted for more than 26 percent of all fatal, major, and moderate human incidents in the United States in 2007, up from 15 percent in 1998.

It was unclear how many incidents were related to proper or improper use of the pesticides.

Although the number of fatalities was low - about 20 from 2003 to 2007 - the number of moderate and serious incidents attributed to the group - more than 6,000 - is significantly greater than any other class of insecticide.

CPI reported that the American Association of Poison Control Centers data show the majority of pyrethrin-related incidents are minor. But association figures also show that the number of exposures resulting in medical treatment is climbing.

Pyrethrins, extracted from the chrysanthemum plant, and their synthetic relatives, pyrethroids, have exploded in popularity over the last decade.

They are used in thousands of consumer products from flea and tick killers to ant and roach killers.

Pyrethrins are widely used in agriculture and widely used in homeowner situations, said Jeff Stoltzfus, a farmer and an adult agriculture instructor for the Eastern Lancaster County School District.

When describing their toxicity, Stoltzfus termed them one of our safer classes of chemicals.

Stoltzfus said this morning he was surprised they would be behind so many reportable poisoning incidents.

He suspects most of the incidents occur in non-farming, residential situations.

On farms, we keep all our chemicals in the same place, whether they are mild or dangerous, he said, and they are all treated with the same respect.

Pyrethrins that farmers use on their corn, soybeans and other crops have such low toxicity they don't present a crop residue issue, he said.

Toxicologist Tom Osimitz of the Pyrethrins Joint Venture, an industry program, told CPI the chemicals do not present any long- term health risks because people tend not to be exposed to them for long periods, and when they are exposed, the chemicals leave their bodies quickly.

Osimitz said the growing number of pyrethrin and pyrethroid incidents should not be a concern, because most people who call poison centers about them don't have symptoms or are experiencing minor effects.

Even experts skeptical of pyrethrin and pyrethroid safety do not advocate banning residential use of the insecticides, according to CPI. Instead, they urge more thorough studies and more specific warning labels.

Debra Edwards, director of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, said the agency had not planned to examine the health effects of pyrethrins and pyrethroids until 2010. But she told the CPI the agency would expedite the examination as a result of the center's investigation.

The EPA's pesticide incident-reporting system has not been public until this year. The database was released under the Freedom of Information Act to the Center for Public Integrity in early 2008.

CPI has a searchable database of poisonings at www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/pesticides/.

A quick search of the database this morning revealed a fatal pesticide poisoning occurred in Lancaster on April 27, 2004.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit organization that investigates issues of public importance.