EPA Must Not Exempt Pesticide-Treated Seeds and Paint from Thorough Examination
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EPA is accepting comments through Friday on its long-held policy of exempting “treated objects,” including seeds and paint, from pesticide registration. Although EPA does not ask the most important question—“Should pesticide-treated seeds and paint be exempt from the scrutiny given pesticide products?”—this comment period offers an opportunity to respond to EPA's questions and express our viewpoints.
Coating seeds with pesticides is one of the most commonly used application methods—135.3 to 156.64 million acres of corn, soybean, and cotton acres were planted with insecticide and fungicide seed treatments in 2023, and approximately 46-57% of planted wheat seed was treated from 2012-2014. Seed treatments are used routinely and preventively—to protect the seed from rotting or, increasingly, as a systemic poison to protect the plant from insects. Routine pesticide applications promote resistance to the pesticide because the pest is constantly exposed, providing a high selection pressure. Preventive pesticide treatments are contrary to even the loosest definition of integrated pest management (IPM) (see Beyond Pesticides and EPA) because the pesticide is applied without knowing whether the pest is present or poses a threat to the crop. Nominally, EPA supports IPM.
Although EPA points to the “comprehensive nature of assessments of pesticides that are intended for use in treating seeds which includes assessment of the impact with use of the treated seed,” its allowance of these poisoned seeds has wide-ranging impacts on all organisms and the entire ecosphere. Corn and soybean seed treatments represent the largest uses of neonicotinoids (neonics) in the U.S.—on somewhere between 34% and 50+% of the soybean crop and for nearly all field corn. This contrasts dramatically with metrics from the decade prior to the introduction of neonics to the marketplace, when a mere 5% of soybean acreage was treated with insecticides. Neonics are systemic pesticides that move through a plant's vascular system and are expressed in pollen, nectar, and guttation droplets (drops of sap exuded on the tips or edges of leaves of some vascular plants). They can also persist in the environment—in soil and water—for extended periods and harm the aquatic food web (see here and here).
Neonics have come under intensive scrutiny in the past decade because of their persistence in the soil, ability to leach into the environment, high water solubility, and potential negative health implications for non-target organisms such as pollinators—especially bees of all sorts—as well as butterflies, bats, and birds. Indeed, a recent Science publication from researchers in Canada demonstrates that “low-level neonic exposure may delay the migrations of songbirds and harm their chances of mating.” Beyond Pesticides' video, Seeds That Poison, offers a succinct primer on the dangers of neonic-coated seeds.
The actual utility of pesticides to achieve their purported goals is an under-recognized failing of the regulatory review of pesticide compounds for use. A study by Spyridon Mourtzinis et al. published in Scientific Reports exposes the faulty assumptions underlying the use of neonics—the most widely used category of insecticides worldwide. It examined a variety of factors in determining neonic efficacy, including weather patterns, soil pH, precipitation, pest abundance and timing, and yield for three experimental groups: soybeans treated with fungicides only, those treated with fungicides and neonicotinoids, and an untreated control group. Despite broad use, the practice of using fungicide-plus neonicotinoid seed treatment appears to have negligible benefit for most soybean producers. The researchers write, “These results demonstrate that the current widespread prophylactic use of NST [neonicotinoid seed treatment] in the key soybean-producing areas of the U.S. should be re-evaluated by producers and regulators alike.”
This research finding repeats some of the findings of a 2014 EPA report, which said that use of treated soybean seed provides little-to-no overall benefit in controlling insects or improving yield or quality in soybean production. It notes the lack of observed pest management benefits of planting treated seeds and the disconnect between perceived crop vulnerability and neonicotinoid utility: “throughout most soybean-producing regions of the U.S., the period of pest protection provided by [use of neonic-treated seeds] does not align with [the presence of] economically significant pest populations. Absent economic infestations of pests, there is no opportunity for this plant protection strategy to provide benefit to most producers.”
Citing other recent studies that have reported “weak relationships between NST use and effectiveness in preserving crop yield,” the authors continue: “A recent multi-state study of management tactics for the key pest in the [Midwest] region, the soybean aphid . . . demonstrated that crop yield benefits and overall economic returns were marginally affected by NST.”
Thus, if EPA is to truly assess the pesticides used in treating seeds, it must take into account not only biodiversity collapse, including the insect apocalypse, but also the lack of benefits provided by the pesticides.
Furthermore, the failure of EPA to suggest a means of disposing of spilled and excess treated seed is a fatal flaw. Previously, EPA included additional labeling instructions for management of spilled and excess treated seed in Proposed Interim Decisions (PIDs) and Interim Decisions (IDs) of several chemicals. This labeling included instructions on the collection and burial of spilled treated seed, incorporation of treated seed into soil, limiting the broadcast planting of treated seed, and proper disposal of excess treated seed. Although EPA previously approved labels for oil seed crops that allowed for the use of excess treated seeds in ethanol production, it now believes these measures may not be sufficient to protect against pesticide buildup after ethanol production and its labeling instructions include language to prohibit the use of excess treated seeds for ethanol production. However, given the persistence of neonics and other pesticides in the soil, the incorporation of systemic pesticides into plants, and the subsequent impacts on primary and secondary consumers of those plants, as well as the known propensity to contaminate waterways, any disposal in the soil poses unreasonable adverse effects.
In addition, this request for comments includes pesticide-treated paints. EPA says that the pesticides in paints are exempt from regulation as pesticides because they are present to protect the paint, and not as an ingredient to protect the painted surface. Regardless of the intention, the presence of the pesticide can be hazardous to the painter through inhalation of fumes (gas) or particulates (in the case of spray application). Others in the vicinity may also be exposed to off-gassing. Clean-up or reuse of paint containers and application equipment may pose an environmental hazard. All of these factors—as well as the need for the pesticide additive—must be considered in the decision of whether to allow the addition of the toxic material to the paint.
The target for this Action is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via Regulations.gov.
Thank you for your active participation and engagement!
Suggested Comments to EPA:
I am commenting as a citizen concerned about the impacts of pesticide-treated seeds and paints on health and the environment. I will address several of the questions posed by EPA.
1. EPA asks whether the treated article exemption should be amended so that treated seed manufacturers would be subject to FIFRA section 7 registration and reporting requirements.
Treated seeds should not be exempt from registration requirements. They should not be used unless it is shown that there are no unreasonable adverse effects associated with their use. If EPA is to truly assess the pesticides used in treating seeds, it must consider not only biodiversity collapse, including the insect apocalypse, but also the lack of benefits provided by the pesticides, as shown by EPA and independent research.
2. EPA asks about available data on the replacement or reduction of other types of pesticides with increasing use of treated seed, saying it would normally address replacement and use reduction on an individual chemical basis, taking into account alternative control strategies to seed treatment.
While many dangers posed by seed treatments are chemical-specific, they are accentuated by the sheer quantity of exposure to soil organisms, herbivores, and secondary consumers, as well as to the aquatic environment. Seed treatment also poses unique risks due to the routine and preventive nature of the application—such as increasing the threat of resistance and violating IPM principles. The near-universal treatment of certain types of seeds makes it almost impossible for organic producers to source untreated conventional seeds. Because EPA does not consider USDA-certified organic production practices and the efficacy of untreated seeds as alternatives, its evaluation of adverse effects associated is inadequate.
3. EPA asks whether additional instructions for spilled seed are needed.
Disposal is a fatal flaw. Given the persistence of neonics and other pesticides in the soil, the incorporation of systemic pesticides into plants, and the subsequent impacts on primary and secondary consumers of those plants, as well as the known propensity to contaminate waterways, any instructions that permit disposal in soil, landfills, or by incineration allow unreasonable adverse effects.
4. EPA requests comment on the severity of inhalation and dermal hazards of the chemicals in treated paint products and how to increase the clarity of the labeling and safe use for the end user and the environment.
Exposure to registered pesticides in treated articles, whether in paint, hairbrushes, cutting boards, fabrics, or underwear, is not safe, but represents a risk like any other pesticide use. If EPA deems the hazards associated with the use of the pesticide in the treated article acceptable, then the agency must require labeling on the treated articles specifying the potential harm associated with exposure to the specific chemical-related hazards, including cancer, neurological and immunological effects, reproductive hazards, respiratory harm, endocrine disrupting effects, as well as a warning to those with any of these preexisting conditions or in treatment for these illnesses. EPA must consider gaseous inhalation exposure, exposure to bystanders, and disposal of residues from cleaning paint containers and application equipment.
5. EPA asks whether use of FIFRA section 3(a) is necessary or appropriate to prevent unreasonable adverse effects on human health and the environment.
Both because of the problems relating to enforceability and the need to determine that pesticide-treated seeds and paints meet the statutory requirement of no unreasonable adverse effects on humans and the environment, these products should not be exempt from the requirement of registration or registration review.
Thank you for this opportunity to comment.