Monday, October 15, 2007

EPA v. science: the fumigant debacle

You may have read in the news last week that the US EPA recently approved an extremely toxic pesticide for widespread use, despite outcry from the scientific community. A group of 53 scientists, including 6 Nobel laureates, had asked the EPA to reconsider, calling the decision to approve such a toxic pesticide "astonishing."

EPA has been dealing with a tricky situation in the global phaseout of the pesticide Methyl Bromide (MB). MB is extremely toxic, and is a potent destroyer of the ozone layer. It was marked for a global ban under the Montreal Protocol, which was designed to stop - and repair - the giant hole in the earth's protective ozone layer. The protocol has been highly successful, except for MB. American farmers just don't want to give it up, and EPA has had a hard time replacing it.

Why is MB so hard to replace? Because it's a silver bullet. MB is a soil sterilizer. Farmers inject it into the soil before planting, where it sterilizes the soil, killing every insect, seed, nematode and microbe it reaches. You might guess that something so toxic must be an older-generation chemical - and you'd be right. MB has been around since 1962, and under today's health and safety standards, you'd be hard pressed to find a chemical that could do the same kind of deadly job.

So instead of finding one that meets today's health and safety standards, or better yet, encouraging ecological alternatives, the EPA found Methyl Iodide, which is every bit as dangerous for farmers, farmworkers and farm neighbors as MB was, except that it doesn't destroy the ozone layer. Hence the astonished scientists.

Maybe they shouldn't be so astonished. Last year, EPA rejected Methyl Iodide as an MB replacement, but then their pesticide department got a new staff person in charge of the project: Elin Miller. Miller is the former CEO of a pesticide company, Arysta Life Sciences. Care to guess which pesticide Arysta manufactures? If you guessed Methyl Iodide, don't worry, you're not a conspiracy theorist - that's what really happened. After Miller came on board, EPA reconsidered their decision, and decided that Methyl Iodide wasn't so bad after all.

There has been quite a lot of media coverage of this debacle, but if you like listening to internet radio I recommend the story by NPR's program, Living on Earth. You can read the transcript and listen to the audio here.

You may be interested in a petition to EPA to rescind this decision and focus on more sustainable agricultural techniques. The Pesticide Action Network has one you can sign on to here. And if you're a gardener or a farmer who uses sustainable practices and the idea of sterilizing soil makes you shudder, you're not alone. We think soil is pretty amazing, living stuff - check out this great diagram of the nitrogen cycle in healthy soil from Science Daily.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Updates from PESTed HQ

Hello dear fair ground readers! Several updates for you:

* Welcome to our (new and hopefully improved) blog. We apologize that we were looking so shabby there for a while, and hope you'll hang in there with us for a few more weeks while we work out the kinks with our new system. I'll let you know when it's time to update your links.

* We're proud to introduce PESTed's newest staff person to the blogosphere: Ana Pardo, Communications Coordinator. She's working to expand PESTed's Spanish-language outreach and organizing work, and improve media coverage of our work in both English and Spanish. You'll also get to hear from her on fair ground - look out for future posts authored by "Ana."

* Today (Weds, Oct 10th), several North Carolina public school systems are being honored for their progress in implementing least-toxic Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs at a ceremony in Raleigh. PESTed's Fawn Pattison will be speaking, along with Fuquay-Varina High School environmental science teacher Randy Senzig, and several state officials, most notably NC Superintendent for Public Education, June Atkinson. Congratulations to all the honorees!
>>For a complete list of today's School IPM honorees, click here (downloads a PDF file).

>>Don't see your school system on that list, and wondering what they're up to? Take Action!
Check out PESTed's most recent Action Alert - Readin', Writin' and Riddin' of Bugs - for information about the rights of parents and teachers under the NC School Children's Health Act, and a sample letter you can send to your school system.

>>For more information
on School IPM and PESTed's Toxic Free Kids program, click here.

* The latest news on the Ag-Mart case is not so great, and not actually all that new, but still very frustrating. From the Raleigh News & Observer, dated Oct 9:
A judge has recommended that the state Agriculture Department drop nearly all its 369 charges of pesticide violations against tomato grower Ag-Mart, the company announced Monday.

In a ruling issued last week, an administrative law judge said Ag-Mart should pay $6,000 in fines, down from an original fine of nearly $185,000.

But, as the article notes: "The final decision on the case still rests with the state Pesticide Board, as the judge's ruling is only a recommendation."

>>Full article from the Raleigh News & Observer

>>Don't like what's going on? Take action - you can start by writing a letter to the editor. Visit a PESTed Action Alert on Ag-Mart for tips - it's a little out of date, but the advice for writing a letter to the editor is still a-o-k. You may also be interested in other ways of taking action - just contact us for more ideas.

* Last, but definitely not least - Buggin' Out! Our first of three screenings of this zany reel of vintage film strips about bugs and pesticides took place in Raleigh last Sunday night, and was a huge success. Thank you very much to A/V Geeks' Skip Elsheimer, Tír Na Nóg Irish Pub, volunteers Heather, Robyn and Kate, and especially to everyone who came out to enjoy the evening and donate to PESTed. We really appreciate your support!

>>Did you miss the show in Raleigh? It's not too late to see Buggin' Out! in Greensboro on 10/20 or Chapel Hill on 10/21! More information here - please save the dates, and tell your friends and family to come join us.

>>Can't make it, but want to contribute towards making Buggin' Out! a success? Contact us to find out what we currently need in the way of volunteer help and supplies, or make a donation any time on our website.
That's all the latest news from PESTed HQ. Have a great week!

Friday, October 5, 2007

freaky friday

There are two great articles in the news today that ought to make most of us sit up and pay attention:

First, from the UK: Is your make-up killing you? The Daily Mail profiled two young British women who agreed to have their cosmetics indexed and tested as part of a television documentary. The article cites a recent study that found that "British women are one of the heaviest users of cosmetics in Europe and, as a result, we ingest through our skin, and occasionally through the mouth, up to 5lb of chemicals a year." I can't imagine American women are too far behind. As for Charlotte and Emma, the two women featured in the article, the levels of phthalates and pesticides in their urine dropped dramatically during their 8-day stint without standard cosmetics.

Dolly Parton once said that it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. It takes a lot of chemicals, too.

And okay, this one is from two weeks ago, but somehow I missed it. Grist published this excellent consumer's guide to endocrine disruptors: Sex Education, a primer on chemicals, fertility and reproduction. The 7 heavy-hitters that Grist covers in the article (bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), perchlorate, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and alkylphenols) are commonly found in our food, cosmetics and a host of other consumer products.

The take-home message from these articles is that we can shop safer by eating organic foods or buying clean cosmetics, making our own non-toxic cleaners and the like, but that's only a small fraction of our exposures to these nasty contaminants. As with most crises, shopping will not solve the problem. We need our government regulators to heed the red flags and get them out of the manufacturing chain entirely.