EPA Decision: A Good Day for Termites
June 21, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
BRIDGE NEWS June 16, 2000
CHURCHVILLE, Va. – The Environmental Protection Agency is forcing a termite pesticide called Dursban off the market "to protect our kids." Unfortunately, EPA has gotten so carried away with the imagined dangers of pesticides that we now risk termites chomping at the roof trusses and floor joists of our houses.
My son's brick house is swarming with termites as we speak. It's been treated three times in three years. They've sprayed it twice with Dursban. The third time, they dosed it with 300 gallons of a still-weaker pesticide called permethrin without killing off the termite colony.
A house filled with three hundred gallons of a pesticide that doesn't work? Every year? This gives new meaning to the term "pest protection." I called Jim White, an old friend from the EPA's Office of Pesticides.
He said the agency had forced the one really effective termaticide (chlordane) off the market in 1988. Dursban is better than the other chemicals on the shelf, but it's not a silver bullet. One treatment with chlordane would have done the job permanently. The Department of Agriculture has records of experiments in which wood protected with chlordane has been buried for 50 years, and is still untouched.
Today's termite "protection" is initially weak, and is gone in a few months. Jim told me he'd been pressured (unsuccessfully) by a EPA official in the late 1970s to put chlordane on the EPA's list of "extremely hazardous chemicals."
Chlordane is in the same chemical family as the long-banned pesticide DDT, but neither chemical has been proven to cause any danger to humans. They cause tumors in rats at 500 times normal human exposure, but so do about a quarter of all the chemical compounds found in nature.
Injected into the ground, Jim said, chlordane was no threat, even to dirt-eating kids. In order to scuttle Dursban, EPA had to throw away the key evidence of its safety: three different tests with human volunteers, in 1971, 1984 and 1998.
Last year, the EPA simply announced it considers human tests "unethical" and threw out existing human test evidence. We can certainly debate the need for future tests on humans, but why do we throw out existing data? That looks like scalp hunting.
The EPA says the "uncertainty of animal testing" now forces it to cut the Dursban "risk cup" to 1 percent of the previous level. And then cut the risk cup by another two-thirds because it would be used where kids might play.
What do the other health experts in the world think about Dursban? California and the World Health Organization both rate the chemical 200 times safer than does the EPA. The EPA itself is leaving Dursban's registration, for use in food processing plants and restaurants!
William Robertson, director of the Washington Poison Center in Seattle, recently told the Seattle Times "I do not recall a single incident of Dursban-caused illness. As a matter of fact, we see very few incidents of poisoning that are symptomatic of any kind of pesticide exposure. The truth is that if pesticides are used according to label instructions they are remarkably safe. This includes Dursban."
Eco-activists are circulating rumors of Dursban and "brain damaged rats." Yet one study poured 500 times the maximum expected human exposure down the throats of 24 mother rats, then examined the nursing babies.
The parietal lobes of the baby rats brains may have been slightly thinner, though the study director said this may have simply been the way the sections had been prepared. The adjoining frontal lobes were normal, discounting a developmental problem. It could also have reflected a lack of parental care from the heavily drugged mothers.
The agency could have ordered a follow-up study aimed at testing the question. Instead, the agency used a questionable aspect of this one study to eliminate still another tool that was protecting our homes and our children.
I get the feeling that Dursban is a sacrifice to election-year politics. EPA chief Carol Browner used to be on Vice President Al Gore's staff. Is she now offering up Dursban to keep environmentalists from bolting to Ralph Nader's presidential campaign for the Green Party?
Only a few of us have termites. So far. But no house not already treated with chlordane is really safe. The rest of us can only wonder if termites are already looking for cracks in our foundations, or even sampling the wall studs.
Last week, the 88-year-old lady who lives next door to my son's termite colony asked him to identify the bugs flying around inside her 1946 house. Braving the clouds of Raid she had sprayed in a useless effort to combat the horde, he identified...a swarm of termites.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.