Pyrethrum carcinogenic, EPA says


Dennis Avery and Alex Avery, of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues (Indianapolis), report that pyrethrum, one of the most widely used organic pesticides, has been declared a likely human carcinogen by an EPA scientific advisory committee.

According to the Averys, this conclusion was reached 2 years ago, but has only recently come to light as a result of a lawsuit challenging the EPA's findings. The case is Jim J. Tozzi, et al, v. United States Environmental Protection Agency et al. Among the plaintiffs is a pyrethrum manufacturer that is taking issue with the EPA's decision.

The Tozzi case largely deals with EPA procedural matters. However, the whole situation goes to the heart of several controversial issues.

One issue is the validity of high-dose animal tests used to determine carcinogenicity. Critics assert that such tests can produce cancer from nearly any substance and are so far removed from realistic exposures that they are virtually worthless in assessing real-world cancer risks. Such tests are, however, routinely cited by activists in attacks on the safety of pesticides.

Another complaint is that a double standard has been unfairly applied, casting suspicion on synthetic chemicals while pardoning "organic" or "natural" products that might not meet the same rigorous standards used with synthetic products.

The case in point is a good example. For years, synthetic chemical producers have complained of inappropriate uses of data to unfairly portray synthetic pesticides as dangerous. Now, the same cry of "foul" is being heard from one of the manufacturers of pyrethrin products, Diatect International, which is a plaintiff in the Tozzi case against the EPA.

At least some organic proponents are being consistent. Avery quotes Ron Cummings, head of the Organic Consumer's Association, as saying: "If pyrethrum is as dangerous as it sounds, then it shouldn't be allowed [for organic farms]." And certain other organic groups have been targeting pyrethrins for some time.

But others still defend pyrethrum. According to Avery, "Charles Benbrook, a long-time organic activist, notes that pyrethrum is applied to crops at low rates and that pyrethrum degrades relatively rapidly, minimizing consumer exposure."

Sound familiar? This defense has long been used by manufacturers of synthetic pesticides, but has been derided by environmentalists. So the defense of pyrethrum on this basis by organic proponents seems blatantly contradictory.

This case comes on the heels of a report that links rotenone, another darling of the organics movement, to Parkinson's disease. As questions continue to mount about organic products, pressure to use the available research more consistently and appropriately will mount.

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