Proposed carbofuran ban supported by science

Over a meeting lasting four days last week, a panel of scientific experts reviewed the data underlying the US Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to ban all domestic uses of carbofuran (trade name Furadan), a nasty war-era pesticide manufactured by FMC Corporation.  EPA cancelled domestic uses because it posed unacceptably high risks to birds, wildlife, and worker health. The Scientific Advisory Panel had to review a lot of last-minute FMC-supplied data, and found most of it inadequate, unconvincing, and highly suspect. One panel member opined that the company's misrepresentation of the data alone may be grounds to reject it (seriously!). Smackdown, FMC! (I'd be rich now if I only had a nickel for ever time I had that thought while reviewing unpublished industry science!!)

Generally, pesticide manufacturers prefer to voluntarily cancel high risk products, or voluntarily withdraw high risks uses, rather than have EPA issue a ban on those products.  This is because an actual ban triggers Prior Informed Consent (PIC) requirements that other countries are informed of the ban. This is, of course, bad for business. So, companies prefer to just quietly withdraw the product from the US market, and then slither away to promote their foreign sales. This case is unusual, because FMC is refusing to slither, prefering instead to take a public lashing....and, they got it from the panel of scientific experts. Even EPA technical experts rebutted the FMC data with ease. (Apparently, seeding a field with 300 dead birds and then finding them isn't a valid test of how good a study is at locating dead birds. Seems that 'real' poisoned birds crawl under ground-cover and hide themselves to die, so when FMC couldn't find any dead birds in carbofuran-treated fields it probably wasn't because carbofuran is safe. Oh well, better luck next time, FMC).

NRDC strongly supports the proposed ban, which will require the phase-out over several years of all its domestic uses (corn, cotton, potatoes, sunflowers, and some minor crop uses). However, EPA is allowing carbofuran on four food imports: rice, coffee, sugarcane, and bananas. NRDC is fighting for cancelling these uses too, to discourage the company from selling its chemical oversees. 

Carbofuran belongs to the chemical family of N-methyl carbamate pesticides that are among the most toxic category of pesticides.  The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) provided by the manufacturer (FMC Corp) for carbofuran warns that “Effects from overexposure result from either swallowing, inhaling or coming into contact with the eyes or skin. Conditions of increased temperature and humidity may aid skin absorption of this product and, therefore, increase toxicity. Symptoms of overexposure include headache, light-headedness, weakness, abdominal cramps, nausea, excessive salivation, perspiration, blurred vision, tearing, pin-point pupils, blue skin color, convulsions, tremor and coma.” This is a typical description of the health effects of all the carbamate pesticides.

A press release from the American Bird Conservancy points out that an EPA Special Review in 1980 estimated that over a million birds were killed each year by the granular formulation of carbofuran. According to scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service there are "no known conditions under which carbofuran can be used without killing migratory birds. Many of these die-off incidents followed applications of carbofuran that were made with extraordinary care." The granular formation was cancelled in 1994, but the liquid form remains on the market.

Hold your ground, EPA! Be brave, cancel the nasty old war-era chemicals like carbofuran. That's why you are called the 'Environmental Protection Agency', and not the, 'Let Toxic Chemicals Poison our World Agency'.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Health program

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