Ban dilemma

the Environmental Protection Agency ( epa ) may soon enforce anti-insecticide laws in the us . At risk are crops worth billions of dollars and the lives of children who may die from cockroach-related asthma and fire ant bites. Disease-carrying ticks may also multiply.

Organophosphate is an insecticide that kills cockroaches, fleas and termites. It enters the nervous system of the bugs and is used on practically every food crop.

For some crops, there are no alternatives; in the case of others the alternatives are either less effective or expensive. A study conducted by the us department of agriculture in 1994 found that eliminating just one of the most common organophosphates, chlorpyrifos, would cost us $150 million per year. According to Leonard Gianessi of the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington, us, this ban would cost up to us $2 billion a year.

The argument against organophosphates is that they are poisonous. Experts believe that the insecticide is not as harmful to humans as to animals. Studies on mice reveal that the average human adult would need to consume about 397.25 kg of broccoli every day for the rest of his/her life to approach the toxicity levels that caused problems in the rodents. However, in 1997, the epa declared that chlorpyrifos "is one of the leading causes of acute insecticide poisoning incidents in the us '.

Of the approximately 1,000 pesticides registered in the us , chlorpyrifos is one of the most commonly used insecticide. Surprisingly, most of the human deaths from chlorpyrifos resulted from intentional ingestion that as suicide or attempted suicide.

Meanwhile, the largest manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, DowAgrosciences of Indianapolis, has established a panel of experts to recommend ways to make its product safer.

The company has joined other manufacturers and trade groups in a fight with government officials to make warning labels easier to read than current regulations allow.

The company funds poison control centres across the country and funds more than 250 studies on organophosphates. That is not good enough to satisfy some environmentalists as nothing but a total ban on household use of organophosphates will suffice, says the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based non-profit organisation. Marcia Van Gemert, former head of the epa toxicology branch, blames the environmentalists, "The attack on organophosphates is politically, not toxicologically driven.'

Nonetheless, an epa panel met last week to explore halting the use of some or allot organophosphates on crops, with a decision expected by May 15. One option suggested in an internal memo circulated by the epa would "revoke all tolerances' for the chemicals.

A "tolerance' is the amount of residue allowed on food, normally set at less than one-tenth the level that might harm anybody. Unless a crop has an established tolerance for a given pesticide, even one piece of fruit or vegetable in a shipment that has any detectable residue can cause the whole shipment to be seized and destroyed.

If the epa were to revoke the registration of a pesticide outright, farmers and chemical makers could mount an immediate legal challenge. But in the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, the us Congress not only allowed the epa to look at risks without considering benefits but also expanded the agency's enforcement options. Among the agency's new powers is the ability to revoke tolerances. If the epa follows this course, affected parties will have no legal or administrative way to introduce scientific studies.

The epa might do the right thing and will not drive fruit and vegetable prices up, ensuring that children eat less of them. Maybe it won't kill asthmatic children by banning potent roach-killing sprays. But a lot of little insects are hoping the ban will come into force.

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