Trump Administration EPA Approves Use of Toxic Pesticide and Medically Important Antibiotic on Citrus Fruits

Published Aug 31, 2022

What Happened: In January 2021, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the usage of a hazardous pesticide, aldicarb, and a medically important antibiotic, streptomycin, on citrus plants despite scientific evidence demonstrating that both substances pose serious threats to public health and the environment.

Why It Matters: EPA officials ignored science-based evidence and toxicology risk assessments that show both aldicarb and streptomycin are hazardous to human health. By approving the use of aldicarb on citrus fruits, the EPA went against its own 2010 decision to ban registration of this pesticide on citrus fruits due to its classification as an extremely hazardous insecticide for both the environment and people, especially farmworkers. By approving the use of antibiotic streptomycin on citrus fruits, the EPA elevated the potential risk of antibiotic resistance in people. By ignoring the science, the EPA violated the laws and protocols that help protect the health and safety of the public and environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to follow the best available science during its decision-making process when they approved the use of a highly toxic insecticide, aldicarb, and a medically important antibiotic, streptomycin, on citrus fruits. The body of evidence on these chemicals suggests that aldicarb exposure is associated with severe gastrointestinal and neurotoxic effects, and overuse of streptomycin can result in increased risks of antibiotic resistance, when bacteria develops the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them, in humans – a growing public health crisis intensified by general overuse of antibiotics in agriculture.

Aldicarb is an insecticide that is applied to soil and taken up by the roots of citrus plants. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified it with the highest acute toxicity rating and is deemed “extremely hazardous.” Aldicarb is responsible for the worst known outbreak of pesticide poisoning in North America, in which over 2,000 people were poisoned after eating California watermelons, with symptoms including nausea, muscle twitches, seizures, and cardiac arrythmia. In August 2010, the EPA decided that aldicarb no longer met the agency’s food safety regulation standards based on its toxicological risk assessments and made the decision to ban use of aldicarb, stating it “may pose unacceptable dietary risks, especially to infants and young children.” Recent studies have also shown the ecological harms aldicarb pose with data collected by EPA scientists showing a single granule of aldicarb was enough to kill a bird or mammal, in addition to a potential threat towards bees. The EPA also identified serious risks to farmworkers due to long-term exposure from this hazardous pesticide, collectively violating the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) which prohibits the registration of pesticides that generally pose unreasonable risks to people, including agricultural workers, or the environment.

In January 2021, the EPA reversed the 2010 decision and approved the expanded registration of aldicarb and streptomycin to address the spread of citrus greening, an invasive plant disease. EPA’s statement claims that the chemicals “present no risks of concern, including to young children.” The new registration would allow thousands of acres of citrus crops, including oranges and grapefruits, to be treated per season in Florida. The EPA press release announced that these new registrations would last up until January 2028.

The approval of streptomycin, an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections, would allow the largest-ever use of a medically important antibiotic in US plant agriculture, over 650,000 pounds, to be used on more than half a million acres of US citrus groves. Federal scientists along with US lawmakers and public health and environmental advocacy groups have all expressed concerns over antibiotic use on citrus crops as residual streptomycin can end up in soil and nearby waterways and lead to the rise of streptomycin-resistant bacteria strains, resulting in antibiotic resistance in humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in their 2019 Antibiotic Resistance Threats Report, more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the United States each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result, demonstrating the risk to public health greatly outweighs the benefits of its use. Also, the weight of scientific evidence suggests that treating citrus greening with antibiotics is ineffective. The EPA approved the use of oxytetracycline and streptomycin in 2016 and discovered that the treatment temporarily delayed the greening disease for a few months, but it did not stop the disease and only prolonged the problem.

The EPA refused to incorporate the best available science and regulate harmful and toxic substances, endangering people across the nation. The agency not only prioritized the concerns of the citrus industry over concerns for human health and environmental impacts, but was negligent of its congressionally-mandated duty to protect people from environmental harms.