EPA Asks U.S. to Ban Pesticide : Agriculture: Highly toxic ethyl parathion has poisoned hundreds of people, especially farm workers, killing many. It is used on about 50 crops in California.


Scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are urging the federal government to ban a highly toxic and widely used pesticide that has been responsible for poisoning hundreds of farm workers.

The pesticide, ethyl parathion, has been on the market for more than 40 years and is used on about 50 crops in California, including almonds, peaches, plums, nectarines, sugar beets and cotton.

Most at risk from the pesticide are farm workers who mix and apply it or tend sprayed fields or orchards. Birds also are highly susceptible.


From 1966 to 1988, the pesticide poisoned 648 people in the United States, according to a 1987 EPA document. Of those victims, 461 required hospitalization and 99 died.

Between 1982 and 1988, there were 124 illnesses in California either caused by or linked to ethyl parathion exposure. Records show that the chemical triggered more health problems than any other pesticide in California from 1949 to 1985, said Veda Federighi, spokeswoman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“Parathion was a real problem when it was first developed,” Federighi said. “It killed some researchers.”

As late as last year, a farm worker who was applying ethyl parathion in Kern County died after accidentally ingesting the pesticide.

Linda J. Fisher, EPA assistant administrator responsible for pesticide regulations, said that she would move quickly to decide whether a complete or partial ban is warranted.

“It is a chemical that is very acutely toxic, and as an agency we need to decide what we are going to do on it quickly,” she said.

Fisher was scheduled to meet today with EPA scientists and other agency advisers who have been reviewing the chemical. She said her decision would be based partially on the safety of available substitutes as well as on the recommendation of the scientists.

“Some uses may have fine substitutes and other uses may have substitutes that are equally dangerous,” she said.

EPA officials said they do not expect to announce Fisher’s decision for at least a few months. If the agency bans the pesticide, it could remain on the market for years, pending appeals. The agency also could suspend the pesticide pending permanent cancellation.

Environmental groups that have been monitoring the EPA’s review of ethyl parathion said they have received indications that the agency will ban most, if not all, uses of the pesticide.

“There are at least some reasons to believe that parathion’s days may be numbered,” said Al Meyerhoff, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

EPA spokesman Albert Heier stressed that the chemical’s use may only be restricted. “I certainly wouldn’t bet my house that we would ban all uses,” he said. “It may be something in-between. Usually it is.”

In banning a chemical, the EPA considers the economic impact on agriculture as well as health and safety matters.

Bob Krauter, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau, said the loss of the pesticide, manufactured by Cheminova A/S, a Danish company, would be especially hard for almond growers, the farmers most dependent upon it in California. Substitutes tend to be less effective and more expensive, he said.

The United Farmworkers has been boycotting grapes since the mid-1980s, in part to protest the use of ethyl parathion. “We’re glad a move is being made before another worker has to die to prove how dangerous this pesticide is,” said spokeswoman Jocelyn Sherman.

Federighi said the use of parathion already has been declining because of its potential danger to workers and because it kills insects indiscriminately. The trend in agriculture has been toward chemicals that target specific pests, she said.

EPA officials said the pesticide, in addition to be acutely toxic, is a possible carcinogen. Although traces of residues may be ingested by consumers on treated fruits or vegetables, there are no indications that the pesticide poses risks in a normal diet, officials said.

“The residues break down very quickly,” Heier said. “By the time it gets to the table, it shouldn’t be a food problem.”