Pesticide activists are outraged as two new reports detail how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) abuses emergency exemptions of pesticides – a provision in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) – to allow the use of harmful pesticides without properly determining their impact on human health and the environment.

The allegations come from a report by the Center For Biological Diversity (CBD) exposing some of the dangerous uses of exempted pesticides and another report by the EPA’s own agency, the Office of Inspector General (OIG). The OIG reported that the EPA does not have measures to determine the impact of emergency exemptions of pesticides, but continues to green-light pesticides without any capability to assess their health and environmental impact.

What are Pesticide Emergency Exemptions?

All pesticides sold or distributed in the U.S. must be licensed by the EPA. The EPA licenses each pesticide under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) – each with its specific use(s). FIFRA allows a provision where the EPA can grant federal and state agencies the authority to apply some pesticides for uses they are not registered for. This provision is called emergency exemptions and is used during emergency situations allowing for only a limited application of the said pesticides.

According to the OIG report, state and federal agencies can apply for emergency exemptions when a “serious pest problem jeopardizes public health or the production of agricultural goods. If the emergency exemption is based on current crop loss, applicants must demonstrate that a significant economic loss will or has occurred and that the pest cannot be countered by a pesticide currently approved for that use.”

Under the exemption process, a state lead agency (SLA), in conjunction with growers and agricultural extension agents, submits an emergency exemption application to the EPA. Depending on the type of exemption applied for the length of the reviewal process varies but all applications are fast-tracked and the OPP aims to respond to all applications within 50 days.

According to the OIG report, on average 140 emergency exemptions are approved annually. Once a pesticide has received an exemption, it is eligible to reapply for another exemption.

Emergency Pesticide Process Flawed and Abused 

In the Center For Biological Diversity’s report titled “Poisonous Process: How the EPA’s Chronic Misuse of ‘Emergency’ Pesticide Exemptions Increases Risks to Wildlife” Nathan Donley, a Center for Biological Diversity senior scientist, calls the process of approving emergency exemptions flawed and open to abuse.

Currently, the application process allows the OPP to collect information such as total acres to be affected, the proposed and actual quantities of the pesticide applied and the estimated economic losses. But the OPP neither uses this data to measure the scope, benefits and risks of each exemption nor communicate the findings with stakeholders.

“This report makes clear that the EPA has been abusing emergency approval to green-light pesticide uses that are either too dangerous or the risks are unknown,” said Donley. “Corporate agriculture is essentially using this as a backdoor to getting highly toxic pesticides approved that would have never made it through the EPA’s normal review process.”

In one example from the 2017 report by the CBD, widespread use of sulfoxaflor was discovered. Sulfoxaflor is a pesticide exempted by the EPA and which the agency had itself confessed to being highly toxic to bees. Multiple studies in recent years have detailed the toxic effects of pesticides on bees.

As of 2017, sulfoxaflor had been exempted 78 times under the assurance that it wouldn’t be used on cotton and sorghum which are attractive to bees. The CBD report discovered sulfoxaflor was approved for use on more than 17.5 million acres of cotton and sorghum in the U.S.

The CBD also found that;

  • There were rarely any emergencies and the insect sulfoxaflor was approved for had been an ongoing problem for more than a decade
  • Approvals were given to 18 states in response to an insect that had been a known problem for at least five years then
  • 14 states received sulfoxaflor exemption for three consecutive years for the same “emergency”

The CBD also discovered that the EPA has been giving emergency exemptions for the antibiotics oxytetracycline and streptomycin to be used on citrus trees. These antibiotics are recognized by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as critically important in human medicine including in fighting tuberculosis.

Environmentalists argue the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture results in increased human absorption of antiobiotics, which leads to drug-resistant bacteria.

“Some environmental groups have also expressed concern that exposure to antibiotics can have serious unintended side effects for wildlife, including adverse drug reactions. They further claim that antibiotics used in the environment can cause changes in the chemical composition and pH of waters and soils, with potentially serious consequences,” the OIG report states.

Correcting the Emergency Pesticide Provision

The report by OIG made numerous recommendations to the OPP including developing “outcome-based performance measures to demonstrate the human health and environmental effects of the EPA’s emergency exemption decisions.”

Other recommendations included updating or developing various internal data collection, application and review procedures and then communicating those findings to all stakeholders in a timely manner.

“The EPA is far too busy looking for loopholes to approve harmful pesticides when it should be focusing on keeping humans and wildlife safe from those pesticides. The routine abuse of emergency exemptions must be eliminated,” Donley recommends.

The OIG report stated that the EPA has disagreed with some of the recommendations but applied corrective actions to the others.

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