A farm chemical with an infamous history – causing the worst known outbreak of pesticide poisoning in North America – is being phased out under an agreement announced Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Manufacturer Bayer CropScience agreed to stop producing aldicarb, a highly toxic insecticide used to kill pests on cotton and several food crops, by 2015 in all world markets. Use on citrus and potatoes will be prohibited after next year.
Tuesday’s announcement comes 25 years after a highly publicized outbreak of aldicarb poisoning sickened more than 2,000 people who had eaten California watermelons.
“Aldicarb no longer meets our rigorous food safety standards and may pose unacceptable dietary risks, especially to infants and young children,” the EPA said in announcing the agreement.
For infants, consumption of aldicarb residue – mostly in potatoes, citrus and water – can reach 800 percent higher than the EPA’s level of concern for health effects, while children between the ages of one and five can ingest 300 percent more than the level of concern, according to an Aug. 4 EPA memo.
In a statement, Bayer CropScience said Tuesday that its decision to agree to phase out aldicarb came after EPA’s new report calculated the health risks to children.
The company said it “respects the oversight authority of the EPA and is cooperating with them” even though it “does not fully agree” with the agency's new assessment. Bayer CropScience stressed that the analysis “does not mean that aldicarb poses an actual risk” to consumers.
One of the most acutely hazardous pesticides still used in the United States, aldicarb is a carbamate insecticide that is taken up by roots and carried into the fruit of a plant. High levels of aldicarb can have neurotoxic effects; it inhibits an enzyme that controls the transmission of messages to nerves.
“After thousands of poisonings, it is mind-boggling that aldicarb is still in use,” said Steve Scholl-Buckwald, managing director of the environmental group Pesticide Action Network North America. “The wheels just grind so, so slowly. It never should have been registered in the first place back in 1970 and by the mid-1980s there was sufficient data to suggest it should have been taken off the market.”
On the Fourth of July in 1985, three people who had eaten watermelon in Oakland, Calif., rapidly became ill with symptoms that included vomiting, diarrhea, muscle twitches and abnormally slow heart rates. At the same time, people in Oregon were falling ill, too, and tests of watermelons found extremely high levels of aldicarb, which was illegal to use on all melons.
California ordered an immediate ban on watermelon sales, which meant huge quantities had to be destroyed in fields and at stores at the height of the season. How aldicarb got into watermelons remains unknown, but experts suspected that some melon farmers used low levels of it intentionally and illegally and that some also might have flowed off nearby cotton fields.That summer, a total of 1,350 cases of aldicarb poisoning from watermelon were reported in California, plus another 692 cases in eight other states and Canada, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seventeen people were hospitalized. Six deaths and two stillbirths were reported in people who fell ill, but the pesticide was not listed as the cause of death in coroner reports.