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Fed rule would ban widely used nerve-agent pesticide

Fed rule would ban widely used nerve-agent pesticide
Chlorpyrifos, a common pesticide used on citrus fruits, almonds and other crops, has been linked to childhood development maladies and nervous system damage. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Federal regulators on Friday proposed a zero-tolerance policy for food-borne residues of a pesticide widely used on edible crops nationwide, effectively ending its application to more than a dozen crops, including tree nuts, soybeans, corn, wheat, apples and citrus.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it no longer could be confident that combined exposure from food and drinking water was safe for the public.

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The action came after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals chided the agency in August for what it called an "egregious" delay in reviewing the safety of chlorpyrifos, which has been linked to nervous system damage in humans.

"Based on EPA's current analysis, there do not appear to be risks from exposure to chlorpyrifos in food, but, when those exposures are combined with estimated exposure from drinking water in certain watersheds, EPA cannot conclude that the risk from aggregate exposure meets the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) safety standard," the agency said Friday.

EPA said the court's order to take action on the pesticide by Oct. 31 interrupted its scientific review, leaving "certain science issues ... unresolved." The agency plans to finalize its rule by December 2016.

The chemical has been banned from consumer products and residential use for nearly 15 years. The EPA revised tolerances for the chemical in 2006 and limited the crops on which it can be applied.

But environmentalists petitioned the agency to revoke registration of the chemical, citing scientific studies linking it to childhood development maladies and nervous system damage.

Those groups on Friday urged the agency to finalize its proposed rule, which will be subject to a public comment and review period.

"We've known for years that chlorpyrifos is dangerous and that's why we sued EPA," said Veena Singla, a health program scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The agency's announcement today is a huge step in the right direction, but we think there's enough evidence to ban all its uses now."

The American Farm Bureau Federation, an agriculture industry group, said it does not expect the rule to stand up to scrutiny.

"We haven't looked at it closely but don't expect it will succeed, especially given that the rule is coming from a court order, rather than something EPA scientists have determined needs to be done," said William Rodger, a spokesman for the federation. "Chlorpyrifos is an important crop protection method we don't want to lose unless we absolutely must. We haven't seen any evidence to that effect so far."

DowAgroSciences, the largest manufacturer of the pesticide, said the court had preempted the EPA's scientific review process. The company "remains confident that all U.S. tolerance issues relating to the continued use of chlorpyrifos can be readily resolved with a more refined analysis of data," said spokesman Garry Hamlin.

California's Department of Pesticide Regulation declared chlorpyrifos a restricted material this year, requiring licensing, training and oversight by county agriculture commissions. It also tightened buffer zone requirements around fields where the chemical was applied, and banned its use near schools and other facilities when winds exceed 10 miles per hour.

The state "has been strongly signaling they need to look for alternatives," said DPR spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe. "Today's proposal underscores that."

From 2001 through 2011, 136 people reported being exposed and sickened by the pesticide, in 35 separate incidents, Fadipe said.

Use of the chemical in California has declined from a peak of more than 2 million pounds in 2005 to about 1.1 million in 2012, but rose to nearly 1.5 million pounds in 2013, the last year in which complete data were available, according to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.

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Environmental activists attribute the increase to the rise in almond production, which has been increasing rapidly in counties where the chemical is most heavily applied, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

More than 500,000 pounds of the chemical were applied to crops in Kern and Fresno counties in 2013, by far the biggest users of the pesticide, according to the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Follow me on Twitter: @LATgeoffmohan

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