EPA Bans Pesticide Blamed for Bird Deaths

The Environmental Protection Agency is banning the use of carbofuran, a pesticide that has killed millions of birds and other wildlife. Environmentalists are thrilled. But a company that manufactures the chemical under the name Furadan says the pesticide's threat is exaggerated.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Environmental Protection Agency has decided to ban a pesticide that's been used for decades and that has killed millions of birds and other wildlife.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports that bird enthusiasts are delighted with the news.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

How delighted are they? Listen to Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy.

Mr. MICHAEL FRY (American Bird Conservancy): The environmental community is overjoyed, and would really like to thank EPA for getting rid of this worst possible pesticide for the environment and for wildlife.

SHOGREN: Fry is a bird toxicologist. He first learned about the danger of the pesticide called carbofuran in the mid-1980s, when he was teaching at the University of California at Davis. Carbofuran was killing flocks of ducks that were grazing in rice fields. Eagles and other birds of prey were dying too, because they ate the duck carcasses.

Mr. FRY: Carbofuran is the pesticide that has killed more birds and other wildlife in legal uses than any other pesticide used in the United States.

SHOGREN: Ten years ago the EPA banned the granular form of the pesticide, but it continued to let farmers use the liquid form on corn, alfalfa, cotton and a whole range of crops. The Agency took another look at the pesticide over the last several years and decided it was too toxic in any form. An EPA analysis found that if a flock of mallards fed on an alfalfa field treated with the pesticide, 92% of the ducks would die. It's also very toxic for bumble bees, small mammals and lots of other wildlife. Again, Michael Fry.

Mr. FRY: They get it in their body, and it's a nerve toxin. It causes paralysis, they have convulsions and they die.

SHOGREN: Jim Jones, who heads the EPA's pesticide program, says carbofuran is risky for people, too, especially farm workers.

Mr. JIM JONES (EPA): We do have evidence of sweating palms, nausea, sort of the next level up from diarrhea, possibly vomiting.

SHOGREN: But FMC Corporation, which sells the chemicals under the name Furadan, is upset about the EPA's decision. Michael Morelli is a toxicologist who works for the company. He says the pesticide can be used safely.

Mr. MICHAEL MORELLI (FMC Corporation): We think that the EPA really has exaggerated the risks associated with this chemical and underestimated the benefits, and we're willing to defend it on those grounds.

SHOGREN: That's exactly the point the company will make during an administrative hearing that has to take place before the ban can go into effect. The decision to ban carbofuran is part of a decade-long review of pesticides. The EPA has been examining them to see if they're safe for children. Pesticide chief Jim Jones says that the agency has banned several chemicals and put restrictions on dozens of others.

Mr. JONES: Over this ten-year period there have been 230 chemicals that now we can say with a great deal of certainty are safe. They're safe for the general public in the diet, they're safe for children, they're safe for the people that work with them and they're safe for the environment.

SHOGREN: But maybe not safe enough, say environmentalists and some scientists inside the agency. Although they were thrilled by the EPA's decision on carbofuran, they say the government didn't adequately consider the dangers posed by many of the other pesticides. And as a result, it's leaving the public and the environment at risk.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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