EPA action on nerve agent used in food applauded, but concerns persist

By Carey Gillam

A proposal by US regulators to issue a ban on most uses of a pesticide that acts as a nerve agent was applauded by health advocates this week, though some warned the proposal doesn’t go far enough.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal targets acephate, a widely used bug-killing chemical whose residues have been found in foods generally considered healthy, such as celery, green beans and tomatoes. The chemical is also found in drinking water.

The agency said it plans to end all uses of acephate on food because it had determined – after more than 50 years of use – that it cannot be certain that “no harm would result” from acephate exposure, particularly from acephate levels in drinking water.

Acephate is part of a class of nerve agent chemicals known as organophosphates that are popular with US farmers who use them to fight pests in their fields. But the chemicals have been linked to a range of adverse health effects, particularly in children, such as reduced IQ, attention deficit disorders, and autism spectrum disorders. Acephate, long banned in the European Union, has also been linked to cancer among other health problems.

“We are applauding this. It is long overdue,” said Patti Goldman, a lawyer with Earthjustice, one of several health and environmental advocacy organizations that have pushed the EPA for year to take action on acephate and other organophosphates. “We are really pleased that EPA is proposing to ban all food uses.”

Earthjustice, along with several other health, civil rights, farmworker, and learning disability groups, filed a petition in 2011 calling on the EPA to prohibit all organophosphates.

The EPA action came late last month, coinciding with a report by ProPublica, which revealed how the agency had in the past justified increasing the amount of acephate allowed on food by removing safety margins that are called for in federal law to protect children from pesticide residues in their diets.

The new EPA proposal reiterates that stance, saying that when using “new approach methods” for developmental neurodevelopmental toxicity (DNT NAMs), there was little scientific support for adding those protections for children.

Nonetheless, the EPA said its assessments show current uses of acephate pose both dietary and aggregate risks that are “inconsistent” with safety standards.