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Endosulfan – a Case study in re-evaluation

February 23, 2011

With the federal government’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) currently examining how it re-evaluates pesticides, it’s worth noting that at least one re-evaluation of a pesticide did not go as quickly as expected. 

The PMRA’s re-evaluation of the pesticide endosulfan started in 2002, but took until 2010 before the agency’s final recommendations – to phase out the pesticide’s use because “identified risk concerns to human health and the environment remain” – were released.  We are still waiting for a final order implementing these recommendations.  

WilsonBorer&WeevilKiller.jpegAlthough the precise schedule for the pesticide’s phase-out still hasn’t been unveiled, if the PMRA’s August 2010 recommendation is accepted, it appears that sales will be banned December 31st, 2011 and that all uses will be illegal in Canada by 2013.  The elimination of endosulfan is long overdue.  Remarkably this dangerous chemical is still authorized for use not just in commercial or industrial pesticides, but (unlike in the US) in at least one pesticide still registered for domestic use (Wilson Borer and Weevil Killer - although the product, while legal in Canada, no longer seems to be listed on the manufacturer's website). 

Even more incredibly, although temporary mitigation measures to protect farmworkers and the environment were recommended by the PMRA in 2004, they were only implemented in November of 2009

When I asked the PMRA about why it had taken so long to complete the review they wrote:

The PMRA's re-evaluation of endosulfan was unusually lengthy and complex for several reasons. Due to the broad range of uses spanning many diverse crops and the lack of alternatives, the PMRA had to thoroughly explore available risk mitigation measures. The receipt of new toxicity data part way through the re-evaluation process to refine the preliminary risk assessment, and the ongoing review of endosulfan's characterization as a toxic substance and persistent organic pollutant both here in Canada and under international conventions took additional time. Few active ingredients have posed all these challenges….

In June 2010, registrants signaled their intention to discontinue registrations and phase-out use in Canada. As published in August 2010, the PMRA had determined that use of endosulfan could no longer be supported.

Registrants here refers to the chemical companies manufacturing and selling endosulfan.  An interesting point here is that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had concluded in June that:

[E]ndosulfan’s significant risks to wildlife and agricultural workers outweigh its limited benefits to growers and consumers nationwide.  The endosulfan manufacturer is in discussions with EPA to voluntarily cancel endosulfan uses. EPA is working out the details to terminate all endosulfan uses while considering growers' needs to timely move to lower-risk pest control practices.

So there is an appearance that the PMRA only moved to ban endosulfan after the US EPA had pushed the companies in question to “discontinue registrations and phase-out use.”
In relation to the delay in implementing the interim measures, the PMRA wrote:

In 2004, the PMRA proposed adopting some elements of the US-EPA's 2002 risk management plan before completing the Canadian re-evaluation, due to certain similarities in uses in the two countries. During the consultation period for the 2004 proposal, farming organizations raised questions about the adequacy and suitability of several measures under Canadian growing conditions. The implementation of interim risk mitigation measures was delayed by the need to identify mitigation measures appropriate for use scenarios in Canada. The PMRA requested and received additional information related to the risk mitigation proposals in response to the 2007 preliminary risk and value assessment and a subsequent 2009 proposal for risk mitigation. This information was useful in making the mitigative measures feasible for growers and also sufficiently protective to allow continued use pending a final risk management decision.

While there may in some cases be needs to adapt mitigation requirements to Canadian circumstances, the fact is that it took 5 years from the point that the PMRA confirmed the need for interim protection (and 7 years from the start of the review process) for farmworkers to get interim legal protection.   

So, to summarize: under the Pest Control Products Act Health Canada is required to re-evaluate the safety of pesticides every 15 years – or more often if other countries have banned them or new information about the pesticide comes to light – but it can take almost a decade to complete the re-evaluation and still longer to have those pesticides taken off the shelf.

So what about a new process?

In a companion post to this one - Health Canada proposes secretive approach to pesticide re-evaluations – I suggested that the PMRA’s proposed new process for re-evaluating pesticides will be less transparent and less accountable.  But given the difficulties in re-evaluating Endosulfan, shouldn’t we be supporting a new process?  After all, a more focused review might not have taken 8+ years to complete. 

On one level there is some plausibility to this argument.  However, the PMRA argues that the delays in the Endosulfan re-evaluation were the result of some fairly unique circumstances, and it is not obvious from their response that a focused re-evaluation would have been completed more quickly.

Throughout the Endosulfan re-evaluation, the PMRA appeared to be unwilling to act until the concerns of industry – both the proponents and the agricultural industry – were fully canvassed and addressed.  While both industries are stake-holders, re-evaluations under the Pest Control Products Act are supposed to adopt a precautionary approach, putting the onus on the registrants to demonstrate that the use of a pesticide is safe. 

The PMRA is proposing to reduce public oversight of its re-evaluation process, with PMRA scientists deciding behind closed doors what will be included in a re-evaluation (and possibly even if it will occur at all).  While that may result in a faster process in some cases, it will not necessarily result in a fairer one.

And meanwhile the revised process offers nothing new to ensure that:

  • interim measures are put in place in a timely manner; and
  • industry does not have a disproportionate influence on the re-evaluation process.

So by all means we need a new re-evaluation process, but it should be one which emphasizes transparency, independence and accountability to the public. 

Andrewblogphoto.jpgBy Andrew Gage

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