EPA Orders Phase-Out of Cherry Orchard Pesticide

The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered that a pesticide widely used in American cherry orchards be phased out of use. EPA officials say the pesticide hurts the environment and can trigger nausea, diarrhea and headaches among orchard workers. Farmworkers are celebrating the ban as a victory, but say they are frustrated that it will take four years to implement.

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The first cherries of the season are showing up in grocery stores, plump and perfect. They come that way in part because of a pesticide that keeps fruit flies and other pests away. Now it turns out that that pesticide is a problem, and the Environmental Protection Agency wants to ban it.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

The EPA first noticed the problem with azinphos-methyl five years ago, and stopped farm workers from using it on dozens of crops. The agency said the pesticide hurt farm workers and the environment, but not people who eat the food. But growers successfully argued that there just weren't any other good options for apples, cherries, blueberries, and several other crops. Now the EPA has decided it wants to phase out all uses of the pesticide, but not immediately - over four years. Jim Jones heads the EPA's pesticide office.

Mr. JIM JONES (Head of Pesticide Office, Environmental Protection Agency): We think it's appropriate to transition away from this product that poses some risk to workers. And it also poses some risk to the environment, because we believe there are alternatives - albeit they are more expensive than azinphos-methyl.

SHOGREN: Erik Nicholson of the United Farm Workers of America is happy the EPA is banning azinphos-methyl, but he's angry the agency isn't moving faster. After all, he says, even the EPA calls the risk to farm worker's health unacceptable.

Mr. ERIK NICHOLSON (United Farm Workers Of America): We have to now go out, you know, this evening, tomorrow, and talk to workers who are working in the orchards right now and say the data has not changed. The risk remains unacceptable. Yet you, because the EPA decides to give the growers another four years, are going to have to continue to bear that risk.

SHOGREN: Nicholson sees it as yet another example of unequal treatment for the people responsible for providing food for America's families.

Mr. NICHOLSON: I think if this risk were facing workers at McDonald's or some mainstream other fast-food chain, there would be swift and immediate action to protect these workers.

Mr. JONES: If we felt that there was the potential for imminent harm, people being seriously hurt by this product during that period of time, we would have taken a more aggressive approach.

SHOGREN: That's EPA's Jim Jones. He says workers may suffer short-term symptoms of nausea, diarrhea, or headaches, but the health effects aren't permanent. Jones says he's getting complaints from growers as well.

Shannon Schaffer from the U.S. Apple Association says growers will fight the ban. He considers the pesticide harmless.

Mr. SHANNON SCHAFFER (U.S. Apple Association): Currently, it's used safety on about 73 percent of the apples grown in the United States, and that's nationwide. It's a very important chemical that's being used very safely by the U.S. apple industry at this point.

SHOGREN: Bob Harris is a major grower of both apples and cherries in Washington State. We reached him on his cell phone in one of his orchards in southern Washington.

Mr. BOB HARRIS (Farmer, apples and cherries): We're picking cherries right now.

SHOGREN: Harris says he's already stopped using azinphos-methyl on both crops. He says he's found better ways to get rid of his insect problem. For the cherries, he uses non-toxic bait that keeps the fruit flies away from his crop.

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, I lure the flies away. It's an amazing product.

SHOGREN: He says when he stopped using toxic pesticides, it made growing cherries a whole lot easier.

Mr. HARRIS: I mean, everybody feels better, because, you know, we don't like the chemicals. They're no fun to use, and you have to be really careful. Your workers all have to be trained how to use it. You have to use all kinds of protective gear. I mean, it's just a big hassle. I think everybody ecstatic about it, you know, that we found out another way to do this.

SHOGREN: By the time the EPA ban kicks in four years from now, Harris says growers will have already abandoned the pesticide, anyway. The EPA is accepting public comments on its proposed ban, and expects to announce a final decision in a couple of months.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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