U.S. EPA's bid to phase out a fluoride-based pesticide is sparking the first stirrings of a political battle, as Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) warned the agency yesterday that its move "could create unintended consequences for public health, food safety, and the economy."
EPA this week proposed a gradual ban on food with traces of sulfuryl fluoride -- a fumigant used on cocoa, grains, nuts and other edibles -- to complement the rollout of new curbs on fluoride in drinking water aimed at protecting children's health.
But in a letter to the agency, Inhofe appears skeptical of the science behind its moves -- particularly the proposed limit on the pesticide, which EPA says represents "a tiny fraction" of children's aggregate exposure to fluoride.
"Federal officials recently informed my staff of a serious debate among scientists, technical experts, and staff at EPA on the agency's ultimate policy decision and supporting scientific rationale" for its fluoride actions, Inhofe wrote to EPA chief Lisa Jackson. The senior Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee added that he would "be conducting oversight on this process" in the coming weeks.
Both the pesticide phaseout and the limits on fluoride in drinking water, announced jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services, came in the wake of a revised EPA risk assessment of the mineral. That new fluoride review was kick-started by a 2006 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report that urged the agency to give greater weight to bone and tooth damage caused by excess exposure to fluoride, which occurs naturally but also is added to tap water by some utilities.
Inhofe's letter doesn't specifically reference sulfuryl fluoride, which breaks down to fluoride and became more widely used recently as a replacement for methyl bromide, a pesticide strictly limited after the 1987 Montreal Protocol deemed it an ozone depleter.
However, an EPA employee contacted the senator's office to raise concerns about the sulfuryl fluoride move, according to an Inhofe spokesman. That employee questioned whether the announced phaseout of the pesticide was driven more by a threatened lawsuit from three public-health advocacy groups that initially sought a ban on the chemical than by scientific evidence.
Those three groups hailed this week's EPA move on sulfuryl fluoride, which a 2009 study pinpointed as a persistent greenhouse gas 4,800 times more potent than carbon dioxide, as a landmark step forward for development of greener alternatives to chemicals that could imperil human health.
Winding down sulfuryl fluoride use "should advance more serious attention to the threats pesticides pose to people's health," Beyond Pesticides Executive Director Jay Feldman told reporters on Tuesday.
Beyond Pesticides, the Environmental Working Group and the Fluoride Action Network (FAN) first objected to EPA's approval of sulfuryl fluoride for use on food in 2004. In the ensuing years, negotiations with the agency and the advocates continued before a lawyer for the groups wrote to EPA in mid-November that "my clients' patience has come to an end."
FAN research director Chris Neurath acknowledged Tuesday that "only the imminent threat of a lawsuit" spurred EPA into the sulfuryl fluoride announcement. However, the groups' lawyer wrote in mid-November that a lawsuit would be forthcoming within 30 days if EPA did not act, suggesting that the threat was not enough to spur the agency into action on the advocates' timetable.
The agency's draft notice granting the advocates' objections notes that while the pesticide accounts for a very small portion of childhood exposure to fluoride, "about 2 to 3%" among the most vulnerable populations, restricting its use is necessary to protect against severe dental fluorosis and other health risks cited in the NAS report.
In a statement responding to Inhofe’s letter, EPA said: "Our recent actions on sulfuryl fluoride were based solely on what the emerging science is telling us and what the law compels us to do."
'More bug parts'?
Inhofe's concern about the "economic implications" of the sulfuryl fluoride move is in line with the broader argument against EPA regulatory action sketched out by Republicans on Capitol Hill. The GOP has vowed to challenge pending rulemakings on several fronts, from pesticides to boiler emissions, that it views as overly punitive for industry.
In the case of sulfuryl fluoride, EPA officials included a three-year delay before revoking human tolerances for exposure to allow significantly affected food sectors such as cocoa and flour mills time to develop alternative fumigation methods. The agency said in its statement that because the pesticide "contributes only a small portion of total fluoride exposure and has resulted in significant reductions in the use of the stratospheric ozone-depleting pesticide methyl bromide," that phase-in constitutes "a sensible decision" intended to "provide time for sulfuryl fluoride users to transition to other treatments and identify alternatives."
EPA economic analysts projected that the flour industry could see annual net revenue dip by about 2.7 percent if it still used the pesticide but removed food before fumigating facilities. If the industry opted for heat treatment to keep insects out of its food stocks, a slight savings might result as fumigation bills declined, EPA estimated.
In an Oct. 22, 2010, e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by Greenwire, the White House Council on Environmental Quality refers to an "informal, expedited" review for the fluoride and sulfuryl fluoride decisions while noting that no point of contact at the Department of Agriculture had yet been identified.
That USDA liaison was in place by Oct. 27, 2010, when other agencies were asked to weigh in on the proposal to gradually wind down the pesticide's use on food.
A congressional aide tracking the sulfuryl fluoride issue said in an interview that USDA may have benefited from an earlier inclusion in the discussion, given the breadth of the chemical's use on cocoa and other crops.
Requesting anonymity to speak candidly, the aide asked whether anyone in the room had considered the question: "Do you want a negligible increase to your fluoride, or do you want more bug parts in your food?"
Click here to read Inhofe's letter to Jackson.