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EPA Sets New Restrictions on Phosphine Fumigants to Reduce Poisonings

(Beyond Pesticides, April 8, 2010) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is requiring new restrictions on aluminum and magnesium phosphide products in an attempt to better protect people, especially children, from dangerous exposures. The new restrictions prohibit all uses of the products around residential areas and increase buffer zones for treatment around non-residential buildings that could be occupied by people or animals from 15 feet to 100 feet. Human exposure to these toxic chemicals, though slightly minimized, would nevertheless continue because of their continued availability for use on athletic fields and playgrounds, around non-residential buildings, and in agricultural production.

Phosphide fumigants are known to be highly acutely toxic when ingested or inhaled. Symptoms of mild to moderate acute exposure include nausea, abdominal pain, tightness in chest, excitement, restlessness, agitation and chills. Symptoms of more severe exposure include diarrhea, cyanosis, difficulty breathing, pulmonary edema, respiratory failure, tachycardia (rapid pulse) and hypotension (low blood pressure), dizziness and/or death.

Aluminum and magnesium phosphide fumigants are used primarily to control insects in stored grain and other agricultural commodities. They also are used to control burrowing rodents in outdoor agricultural and other non-domestic areas. The fumigants are restricted to use by specially trained pesticide applicators.

Following are the provisions of EPA’s new restrictions:

• Use is prohibited around all residential areas, including single and multi-family residential properties, nursing homes, schools (except athletic fields, where use may continue), day care facilities, and hospitals;
• The products must only be used outdoors for control of burrowing pests, and are for use only on agricultural areas, orchards, non-crop areas (such as pasture and rangeland), golf courses, athletic fields, parks and recreational areas, cemeteries, airports, rights-of-way, earthen dams, and other non-residential institutional or industrial sites.
• Products must not be applied in a burrow system that is within 100 feet of a building that is or may be occupied by people or domestic animals;
• When this product is used in athletic fields or parks, the applicator must post a sign at entrances to the treated site containing the signal word DANGER/PELIGRO, skull and crossbones, the words: DO NOT ENTER/NO ENTRE, FIELD NOT FOR USE, the name and EPA registration number of the fumigant, and a 24-hour emergency response number. Signs may be removed 2 days after the final treatment;
• When this product is used out-of-doors in a site frequented by people, other than an athletic field or park, the applicator shall post a sign at the application site containing the signal word DANGER/PELIGRO, skull and crossbones, the name and EPA registration number of the fumigant, and a 24-hour emergency response number. Signs may be removed 2 days after the final treatment; and,
• Fumigant Management Plans must be written before all applications of phosphine products, including all burrowing pest fumigations. A Fumigant Management Plan is a written description of the steps designed to plan for a safe, legal and effective fumigation. The certified applicator and owner of the property to be fumigated must characterize the area to be treated and include all safety requirements in the plan before application.

EPA issued a Reregistration Eligibility Decision (RED) in 1998 for aluminum and magnesium phosphide and plans to begin their registration review in 2013.

Earlier this year, investigators began investigating the deaths of two young sisters in Layton, Utah to a phosphide pesticide that was used to kill voles, small burrowing rodents, in their family’s front yard. The death of these children and the poisoning of the family raised serious issues about the adequacy of the pesticide’s label restrictions, approved by EPA, and their enforceability.

Beyond Pesticides believes that integrated pest management (IPM) is a vital tool that aids in the rediscovery of non-toxic methods to control rodents and facilitates the transition toward a pesticide-free (and healthier) world. It offers the opportunity to eliminate or drastically reduce pesticide use and to minimize the toxicity of and exposure to any products that are used. Sanitation, structural repairs, mechanical and biological control, pest population monitoring are some IPM methods that can be undertaken to control rodents.

EPA, to its credit, recognizes that the use of toxic chemicals to control rodents is itself not effective rodent management. IPM practices are recommended by EPA for rodent control in and around households. EPA advises that effective rodent control requires sanitation, rodent proofing, and removal of rodent harborage; habitat modification to make an area less attractive to rodents, and discourage new populations from recolonizing the area. Non-chemical devices such as snap traps and other trapping systems are also affordable and quite effective as a method for rodent control.

However, while EPA recognizes that IPM practices are safe and effective methods for controlling rodents, the dependency on the rodenticides as a means of control continues. Given that EPA acknowledges that effective rodent management will not be achieved without the adoption of safer IPM techniques, it is imperative that these practices are promoted to the consumer so that efforts can work toward the elimination of public and environmental exposures to low levels of toxic rodenticides. To do this, rodenticide labels must require the users to establish IPM practices and only allow the introduction of poisons as a part of this approach as a last resort.

Beyond Pesticides and other organizations have raised concerns about chemicals that volatilize as gas and chemical fumigants that move through the air from the target site (be it an animal burrow or an agricultural crop). In June 2009, Beyond Pesticides and 27 groups from across the country sent Administrator Lisa Jackson indicating that the agency’s new fumigants policy “continues an outdated EPA approach to pesticide regulation that adopts unrealistic and unenforceable standards as risk mitigation measures, in an age of safer, greener approaches to agricultural pest management.”

For more information on rodenticides and the alternatives to managing rodents, see Beyond Pesticides fact sheet “Rodents Teach Lesson of Failed Chemical Controls: City officials gather to learn new approaches to rodent management less dependent on chemicals, more focused on habitat reduction.” For least toxic control of mice and other pests visit Beyhond Pesticides’ alternatives page.


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