A few widely-used pesticides have the ability to harm nearly all the endangered species in America, a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency has found.
The EPA’s draft report, which was released earlier this month, looked at three widely-used pesticides: chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion. It found that both malathion, which is used in agriculture, for lawn care, and for mosquito control, and chlorpyrifos, which is used on a range of crops including cotton, almonds, and fruit trees, was “likely to adversely affect” 97 percent of the 1,782 species listed under the Endangered Species Act. The other pesticide, diazinon, which is used in orchards and vegetable crops, was found to likely adversely affect 79 percent of these species.
Federal agencies like the EPA are supposed to do consultations like these whenever any action they’re planning on taking — like, in the EPA’s case, approving a pesticide for use — could affect an endangered species. But the EPA has been ignoring that mandate under the Endangered Species Act, said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which began suing the EPA starting in 2004 over its failure to take pesticides’ impact on endangered species into account.
“This is the first time they’ve ever done this,” Burd said. “We’re using a billion pounds of pesticides each year in this country without really figuring out how they’re affecting us or endangered species.”
This month’s draft report on the three pesticides is the first the EPA is releasing after settling with the CBD — the agency has also agreed to do reports on herbicides glyphosate and atrazine. These first three, Burd said, were priority pesticides. They’re all organophosphates, the most widely-used class of pesticide in the world that’s also one of the most toxic. Organophosphates kill their intended insect targets by inactivating an enzyme that’s crucial to nerve function in insects and other living things. In high enough quantities, it can be deadly to humans: In 2013, at least 25 children in India died after eating food that contained unsafe levels of organophosphates. There’s already a decent amount of data on these pesticides, Burd said, but the EPA hadn’t before issued these formal consultations on them.
“This is huge wake-up call, if nothing else, to get to a number like 97 percent of all endangered species,” she said. “I never imagined it’d be that high. Many species that are listed would probably be doing a lot better and we’d be able to remove them from the Endangered Species List if they weren’t facing these threats.”
Endangered species can come in contact with these pesticides in a number of ways, Burd said. Fish and amphibians can be exposed if runoff washes pesticide residue into streams and ponds. Whooping cranes, which often make pit stops in soybean fields during migration, can be exposed by direct ingestion of soybeans treated with the pesticide. And edge habitats — the region between an agricultural field and a forest, for instance — have been found to contain high levels of pesticides.
The pesticide industry insists these chemicals are safe. Jay Vroom, president and CEO of CropLife America, told Civil Eats in a statement that the products “have been safely used on millions of acres for decades, with no evidence that they have harmed endangered species.”
But Burd said that even if these pesticides aren’t making endangered species “drop dead,” the EPA’s finding that they are “likely to adversely affect” species is nearly as troubling. DDT didn’t make eagles “fall from the sky,” she said, but it did cause their eggshells to thin, which ended up having devastating consequences for reproductive success. And, she said, the EPA’s failure to conduct these endangered species consultations points to broader problems in the federal government’s process of studying and approving what pesticides are used on our farms, gardens, and public spaces.
“There’s this kind of idea that this is traditional agriculture and that this is what [farmers] need to grow food, but this incredibly pesticide-intensive agriculture is pretty new,” she said. “We’re using … more chemicals every day without thinking about how they’re effecting the soil and leading to more pests. It’s my sincere hope is that this will lead to close consideration for how were farming in this country.”
That point — that the pesticides we’re using could be posing a major risk to our health and environment — is a common one in the United States. Glyphosate, the most popular weed-killer in the United States and a key ingredient in Monsanto-developed Roundup, is still used liberally even though the World Health Organization found last year that it likely causes cancer. The EPA plans to place restrictions on the herbicide due to worries that it’s causing weed resistance in crops, but the agency doesn’t consider it a carcinogen, citing “inadequate evidence.”
And a range of citizens — including members of Congress, business-owners, and environmental groups — have called on the EPA to better protect bees and other pollinators from neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides that’s been found to affect bees’ brains and could be contributing to the large-scale bee losses being felt around the country. Concerned over what these pesticides are doing to bees, many are urging the EPA to restrict their use on bee-friendly crops and take the pesticides’ impact on bees into account before registering new neonics.
The EPA, for its part, told ThinkProgress in a statement that it is “committed to complying with the Endangered Species Act,” and that the “recently released draft biological evaluations for chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion are pilot cases for new approaches” on looking at pesticides.
Now that the EPA has completed its draft report for these three pesticides, the draft will be available for public comment for 60 days. Then, the EPA will finalize the report, and pass it along to the relevant agency for more analysis — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will look at the pesticides’ threat to land animals, while the National Marine Fisheries Service will look at threats to marine life. That agency will release its own analysis of threats, and after that, policy decisions can be made. These biological opinions completed by the agencies will include recommendations of “reasonable and prudent measures” that should be taken to protect species, Burd said.
“I hope that this is a significant turning point in pesticide regulation and that we’ll be able to use these findings to really help these endangered species towards path to recovery,” she said.
This post has been updated to include a comment by the EPA and to correct a previous reference to the U.S. using a billion tons of pesticides each year. It actually uses a billion pounds.