WASHINGTON—The Environmental Protection Agency has approved use of the dangerous, previously-cancelled pesticide aldicarb and the medically important antibiotic streptomycin on citrus.
The decision allows 100,000 acres of Florida oranges and grapefruit to be treated with 2.5 million pounds of aldicarb, a pesticide banned in more than 100 countries and one of only 36 pesticides classified as “extremely hazardous” by the World Health Organization.
The agency’s approval of streptomycin — an antibiotic considered critical in the fight against the tuberculosis pandemic — on up to half a million acres of U.S. citrus groves will allow the largest-ever use of a medically important antibiotic in U.S. plant agriculture.
“Make no mistake, these reckless approvals will harm children and farmworkers and further hamper our ability to combat major public health crises,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Biden administration must immediately reverse these dangerous, immoral decisions by Trump appointees untethered from science and reality.”
Both aldicarb and streptomycin were approved to combat citrus greening disease, which has harmed Florida’s citrus industry. But the EPA has already approved at least 18 different pesticides to kill the Asian citrus psyllid, the vector of the disease.
Two years ago the state of Florida found that aldicarb failed to meet even minimum requirements to achieve state-specific approval for use on citrus.
Broadcast spraying of antibiotics has also been shown to be largely ineffective against citrus greening disease, at most buying affected trees a few more months before they succumb to citrus greening.
Both the European Union and Brazil have banned agricultural uses of streptomycin, which is considered “critically” important to treating human disease by the WHO.
“These decisions solidify the reputation of the EPA’s pesticide office as a rubber-stamp for even the most dangerously outrageous wishes of corporate agriculture and agrochemical companies,” said Donley. “Citrus greening disease is terrible, but stepping over the protective line drawn by the rest of the world will only harm our communities without doing a thing to save the U.S. citrus industry.”
The EPA identified significant risks to farmworkers from the use of aldicarb, yet approved the pesticide anyway.
In its risk ecological assessment for use on citrus, EPA found that ingesting just a single granule of aldicarb is enough to kill a bird or mammal. The agency also estimated use of aldicarb could expose bees to 76 times the amount of the pesticide known to cause harm. But the agency “conditionally” approved the pesticide while more study on bee toxicity is completed.
This approval comes as representatives from the citrus industry have been lobbying the EPA, which previously committed to banning aldicarb, to approve use of the neurotoxic pesticide on the nation’s citrus. The lobbying efforts included a meeting with the agricultural advisor to EPA Administrator and Trump loyalist Andrew Wheeler.
Background on Aldicarb
In addition to being designated as “extremely hazardous” by the WHO, aldicarb is also one of the few pesticides — along with DDT — subject to regulation under the Rotterdam Convention, an international treaty designed to reduce trade of the most hazardous chemicals in the world. The United States is one of only a few countries around the world that has not ratified the treaty.
In 2010 the EPA and Bayer reached an agreement to end the use of aldicarb in the United States after the EPA found that its ongoing use posed unacceptable dietary risks to infants and young children. The crop use that resulted in the highest risk to infants and children was citrus, which Bayer agreed to cancel immediately. While the other uses of aldicarb were being phased out, AgLogic applied for, and received, approval for use on a small subset of other crops. Now that it is reapproved on citrus, aldicarb use will dramatically increase.
Background on Streptomycin
It is estimated that the approval of streptomycin on citrus could lead to more than 650,000 pounds of the vital antibiotic being used each year in Florida alone. By contrast, people in the United States currently use only about 14,000 pounds of that antibiotic class each year.
Today’s move follows a similar approval two years ago of the “highly” important antibiotic oxytetracycline for use on the same citrus crops. Citrus crops are grown mainly in Florida, California, Arizona and Texas. In 2019 there were 687,000 acres of citrus crops grown in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Drug Administration have expressed concerns about the use of medically important antibiotics as pesticides and have spoken out publicly against it.
Recent research suggests that antibiotic-resistant infection rates are on the rise nationally, with an estimated 162,000 Americans dying each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. The WHO ranked antibiotic resistance among the top 10 health threats in 2019. Overusing antibiotics in any setting fuels the spread of drug-resistant bacteria.
The EPA’s own analysis indicates that the widespread use of streptomycin could have negative long-term effects on all mammals that forage in treated fields, including chipmunks and rabbits. The agency has not analyzed how this change could specifically affect endangered and threatened species that forage or nest in these citrus groves, or that rely on waterways contaminated by the antibiotic.