EPA internal emails suggest science took back seat to political pressure in pesticide approval

By Johnathan Hettinger

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering a new approval for a pesticide that would be used on Florida oranges and grapefruits despite the fact that agency scientists have repeatedly found the chemical does not meet safety standards designed to protect children’s health, internal agency records show.

EPA emails suggest that persistent pressure from chemical industry lobbyists, politicians and political appointees led the agency’s Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) to change its position on aldicarb from one that favored public health to one that critics say instead favored the interests of a North Carolina-based company called AgLogic that is seeking to expand sales of the insecticide. The EPA communications were obtained by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and reviewed by The New Lede.

In one 2020 email, for example, an EPA regulatory specialist wrote to AgLogic that while the EPA was not yet able to make a safety finding, the agency has “spent time brainstorming possible solutions”. The emails also show that scientists within the agency felt they had to “defend” their concerns about aldicarb as top agency administrators and lawmakers made expanded approval of the chemical a priority.

“What this shows is just how difficult it is for the agency to say no,” said Nathan Donley, Environmental Health Science Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “They were going to reject it so many times, and [AgLogic] just said, ‘no, no no.’”

The revelations underscore whistleblower complaints made by EPA scientists in 2021 alleging that they have been routinely pressured for years to minimize or remove scientific evidence of the dangers certain chemicals posed to public health.

A risk to babies’ brains
Aldicarb is considered “extremely hazardous” by the World Health Organization and has been banned in more than 100 countries. It also is banned by the Rotterdam Convention, a global agreement to regulate the world’s most hazardous chemicals.

In the US, the EPA found in 2010 that aldicarb posed unacceptable risks to the developing brains of infants and young children, leading German conglomerate Bayer AG to cancel its registration for sales of aldicarb. At that time, the highest risk for infants and children was found to be when aldicarb was used in citrus. Since then, the EPA has allowed AgLogic a limited approval to sell aldicarb for use on cotton, dry beans, peanuts, soybeans, sugar beets, and sweet potatoes. Those uses have been rare, according to US Geological Survey data.

In recent years AgLogic has been pushing for expanded approval to allow the insecticide to be used by farmers on Florida grapefruits and oranges. The EPA did grant the approval in 2021 in the waning days of the Trump Administration, but that approval was overturned by a federal court in response to litigation brought by opponents. Approval was additionally rejected by Florida regulators who found that the continued use of the pesticide posed “an unacceptable risk to human, animal and environmental health in Florida.”

After a renewed effort by AgLogic, EPA approval for aldicarb use on citrus is now under consideration again.