Chronic Pesticide Exemptions May Increase Risks to Our Pollinators

Posted on January 8, 2018 by Stephanie Parent

EPA has the responsibility to protect the public and the environment, including bees and other pollinators, from the use of pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Before any pesticide can be sold or distributed in the United States, EPA must register it after determining that its use will not generally cause “unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.” Section 18 of FIFRA allows use of pesticides that have not met this standard if “emergency conditions exist.” Congress intended use of Section 18 emergency exemptions to address urgent pest conditions such as severe and unexpected insect outbreaks. Yet, in some cases, EPA seems to administer the emergency exemption program so that it functions as a shortcut, allowing pesticide use to bypass the registration standard.

EPA’s repeated “emergency” exemptions for use of the insecticide sulfoxaflor on cotton and sorghum over the last six years are a good example of this. Sulfoxaflor is an insecticide, which EPA acknowledges is very highly toxic to bees. In 2015, the Ninth Circuit vacated EPA’s decision to register sulfoxaflor because “[w]ithout sufficient data, the EPA has no real idea whether sulfoxaflor will cause unreasonable adverse effects on bees, as prohibited by FIFRA.” In 2016, EPA registered sulfoxaflor without additional bee data or studies. Instead, EPA explained that the new registration results in “essentially no exposure to bees” because this time it did not allow use on indeterminate blooming crops, such as cotton, or on crops grown for seed. And, the registration restricted applications on certain “bee attractive” crops to post-bloom only.

Despite these restrictions in the registration designed to avoid harm to bees, EPA has exempted the use of sulfoxaflor over 70 times from 2011 through 2017. All but one of these exemptions was for use on cotton, which was retracted from the registration application following the Ninth Circuit’s decision, or on sorghum, which was never included in the registration in the first instance. Most recently, EPA exempted the use on alfalfa grown for seed, even though the registration also prohibits such use to avoid adverse effects to bees. The Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, makes the case that EPA’s chronic approvals of Section 18 exemptions for use of sulfoxaflor no longer reflect “emergency conditions” and are circumventing the FIFRA’s registration standard. We may learn more about sulfoxaflor and other exempted pesticide uses when EPA’s Office of Inspector General concludes its evaluation of whether EPA’s emergency exemption process maintains environmental and human health safeguards. 

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