Daily News Archive
From February 5, 2002

Environmental Groups Sue U.S. Government for Bird Deaths

The American Bird Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife and Biodiversity Legal Foundation have joined forces. On January 28, 2002, they filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the use of the organophosphate pesticide fenthion for adult mosquito control in Florida.

Fenthion is toxic to birds in very small doses, whether it is inhaled, ingested in food or water, or absorbed through the skin. Birds are far more sensitive to fenthion than other vertebrates. Fenthion is so toxic that hundreds of birds of sixteen species were killed in twelve separate incidents when it was sprayed at a rate of only 2/3 of an ounce per acre. In one instance, when used for adult mosquito control, it caused the death of 25,000 birds of 37 species. It has also killed the Piping Plover, and endangered species. The EPA is currently considering the re-registration of fenthion.

The notice of intent, called a "Sixty Day Letter," is required under U.S. law for cases involving endangered species, and gives the EPA 60 days to remedy the situation before litigation begins. It outlines violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), a law that makes killing any migratory bird, intentionally or unintentionally, without a permit illegal.

Florida is the only state in the U.S. to use fenthion. The pesticide, often applied by a helicopter, remains in the air for long periods and can cause increased exposure to birds at deadly levels. Areas distant from the original application site are often contaminated by drift. Rain washes residues into streams, marshes and estuaries, causing the deaths of aquatic species, including fish, shrimp, crabs, and amphibians.

Fenthion is a neurotoxin. Like DDT, it accumulates in fatty tissue and can be passed on through the food chain to concentrate in top-level consumers. According to the EPA, fenthion can cause "nausea, dizziness, confusion, and at very high exposures (e.g. accidents or major spills), respiratory paralysis and death" in humans. Fenthion has been identified as a carcinogen in mice. It is readily absorbed through the skin and, studies have found unacceptable levels of residue in areas where humans are likely to be exposed. Cumulative exposure may be of concern, since fenthion is stored in body fat. The EPA is currently evaluating exposure in children, who are most likely to contact fenthion on lawns and in the household.