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EPA Revises Views on Dangerous Pesticide Lindane
When an Alaskan Inuit mother prepares dinner she worries that the salmon, halibut and muktuk (whale meat) that her family will share might be contaminated by the dangerous pesticide lindane. She’s not the only one who should be concerned. More than half of us living in the U.S. have lindane or its by-products in our bodies from eating lindane-contaminated food or using lindane lice shampoo. Chances are that you have lindane or its by-products in your body. This is even more likely if you are a woman, an agricultural worker or live in northern latitudes like Alaska. Your children could also be contaminated with lindane.
Policy makers got a taste of the concerns of Arctic Indigenous people and other U.S. folk when environmental activists served a “Lindane Lunch” to them last year in San Diego. On the menu were wheat bread, chocolate chip cookies, mixed nuts, pickles, salmon, halibut and whale meat. Human breastmilk, a precious substance known to be contaminated by lindane around the world, was on display. Colorful cocktail napkins with “Five Reasons to Ban Lindane” reminded the policymakers that lindane is one of the most toxic and persistent pesticides used in North America today.
Lindane is used in the U.S. as a seed treatment for wheat, corn, oats, rye, barley and sorghum. Its pharmaceutical uses include shampoos and lotions for lice and scabies treatment. Lindane and its by-products (isomers of the parent chemical hexachlorocyclohexane, or “HCH”) are suspected carcinogens and hormone disruptors. A suspected neurotoxin, lindane can cause seizures and damage to the nervous system, and can weaken the immune system. Research has shown a significant association between brain tumors in children and the use of lindane-containing lice shampoos.
High concentrations of lindane and HCH isomers in the bodies of U.S. women of childbearing age put future generations at risk. Infants can be exposed to lindane and its by-products through human breastmilk and lindane is passed onto fetuses through the placenta. Incidents of fatal poisoning by lindane illustrate its toxicity: in 2000, an eight year old girl died in the UK after accidentally eating less then a teaspoon of lindane ant powder. Agricultural workers who are exposed to lindane suffer acute symptoms like agitation, vomiting, abdominal pain, convulsions and violent seizures. Highly persistent in the environment, lindane and its by-products contaminate air, water and soil for months past lindane’s use in agriculture. Air and ocean currents transport the toxic chemical far from where it was initially used as a pesticide.
In February 2006 U.S. EPA released a draft risk assessment of the agricultural uses of lindane for public comment. EPA’s 2006 revised risk assessment is a significant improvement over the agency’s flawed 2002 risk assessment, in which the agency restricted itself to health effects of only lindane, ignoring the dangerous by-products created by lindane production and use. In contrast, the EPA’s current risk assessment considers health effects of all HCH isomers. “EPA is finally looking at the combined effects of lindane and its by-products,” explains Kristin Schafer, Program Coordinator for PANNA.
EPA’s new risk assessment also acknowledges and accepts the harmful affects of lindane and other HCH isomers on the health of indigenous Arctic populations in Alaska. Lindane is neither used nor produced in Arctic regions of Alaska or Canada, but is transported there through air and ocean currents. In 1997, the Northern Contaminants Program estimated 15 to 20 percent of Inuit (Eskimo) women on Canada’s southern Baffin Island were exposed to dangerous levels of lindane in their daily diet. The 2006 assessment is significant also because unlike past risk assessments, EPA has considered endocrine disrupting effects of lindane and other HCH isomers among the ecological effects it has assessed. In addition, EPA’s current risk assessment discounts as unviable and impractical pesticide industry’s claims that waste from lindane production can be effectively converted into other “useful” chemicals . PANNA’s Kristin Schafer adds, “We applaud this more realistic assessment, which makes the case for an immediate ban of this old pesticide even stronger.”
Lindane is currently banned in 52 countries and the international community has shown strong support for restrictions on lindane. It is listed on the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list, which requires countries that are party to the treaty to notify importers of any exports of pesticides or other chemicals banned or severely restricted by the treaty in other countries. Lindane is being considered for a global ban through the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) treaty. In North America, efforts to address the risks of lindane continue through the work of the NAFTA’s Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC). Under the CEC’s North American Regional Action Plan (NARAP) on Lindane and HCH isomers, in 2005 the government of Mexico agreed to phase-out all uses of lindane and the Canadian government agreed to promote safer alternatives to pharmaceutical uses of lindane. Agricultural uses of lindane were already banned in Canada. However, the U.S. government’s inaction and industry influence have prevented an outright ban on lindane in the United States. “In developing the NARAP for lindane, it became clear that the U.S. was an obstacle to progress in the region,” says Pam Miller, NGO representative to CEC’s Lindane Task Force and Director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
EPA has requested public comment on its 2006 revised risk assessment by April 10th. EPA has solicited comments on lindane’s cancer classification, specific health effects such as its effects on the liver, data on exposure of infants to lindane through breastmilk, the safety factor that should be considered for lindane and the pesticide’s impacts on subsistence populations in the Arctic. Despite the progress made by EPA in its 2006 risk assessment, it has neglected to consider the cumulative effects of multiple routes of exposure to lindane by people and the environment. For example the agency does not consider the negative health effects for an average North American individual exposed to lindane from contaminated food, water and air simultaneously. Lindane and its by-products are toxic to humans, animals and the environment. Viable alternatives exist for agricultural as well as pharmaceutical uses of this unnecessary chemical. The U.S. government must join Mexico and Canada in protecting North American populations and the environment from this dirty pesticide. EPA’s 2006 revised risk assessment is a step in the right direction towards ultimately banning all agricultural uses of lindane in the United States. Join us in urging EPA to BAN LINDANE NOW!
U.S. POPs watch
PANUPS is a weekly email news service providing resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don’t always get coverage by the mainstream media. It’s produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.
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