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The Pesticide Rotenone: On the Shelf Instead of Shelved


by Bill Chameides | February 17th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | Comments Off on The Pesticide Rotenone: On the Shelf Instead of Shelved

More than 80,000 chemicals are produced and
used in the United States. This is one of their
stories.

According to the National Institutes of Health, pesticides are linked to Parkinson’s disease but not to worry. Really?

The Alarm Was Sounded

The NIH press release, reporting on the results of research by Caroline Tanner of the Parkinson’s Institute and co-authors, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, begins like so:

“New research shows a link between use of two pesticides, rotenone and paraquat, and Parkinson’s disease. People who used either pesticide developed Parkinson’s disease approximately 2.5 times more often than non-users.”

The Chemical Marketplace
A series that looks at chemicals in everyday consumer products
     Alkylphenols and laundry and such »
     Aluminum and antiperspirants »
     BPAF »
     Dioxin and eggs »
     Flame retardants and pets »
     Fluoride and water »
     Formaldehyde and no-iron shirts
     Insect repellents »
     Nanoparticles and food »
     PAH and seal coats: A no-brainer »
     PBDE and fire retardants »
     PFOA and popcorn »
     Piperonyl butoxide, a pesticde »
     Propoxur and bedbugs »
     Rotenone
     Spray foams, sealants, diisocyanates »
     TDCPP and the air »
     Triclosan and toothpaste »
     Trihalomethanes (THM) and
     showering »

It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. One worry: have I ever used or been exposed to the stuff in the past? Then an even bigger worry: might I be exposed in the future?

But Maybe No Cause for Alarm

These concerns were alleviated on further reading of the press release:

“There are no home garden or residential uses for … rotenone currently registered. … Use of rotenone as a pesticide to kill invasive fish species is currently the only allowable use of this pesticide.”

That reassuring message is echoed in reports like this one and this one. And even EPA documents (like here and here [pdf]) give the distinct impression that all uses of rotenone, except as a piscicide (fish poison), have been canceled as of 2006.

So, even though research ties rotenone exposure to a very serious disease, most of us really don’t need to be concerned because we won’t be exposed. I mean how many of us are tackling invasive fish populations?

Not Quite End of Story

Something just didn’t seem kosher to me, so I decided to check a little further — by doing some online shopping. Googling “rotenone,” lo and behold, returned myriad home, garden and pet products that contain the insecticide and that, with a simple click, I could load into my virtual shopping cart, and for a modest price have them easily FedEx’ed to my front door. (Here are a few listings: Bonide 757 4lb Rotenone Dust, Rotenone at Nexttag, Bonide Garden Rotenone).

So what’s the story? Frankly, I don’t fully understand. It’s a confusing tale of regulatory gobbledygook that somehow allowed rotenone to stay in the marketplace (for unregistered uses) after companies indicated they would voluntarily withdraw those uses from the marketplace.

Rotenone Seeps Through the Regulatory Cracks

The tale begins in 2006 when EPA initiated a “new program … to reevaluate pesticides on a regular cycle” to ensure that they still meet “no unreasonable adverse effects” criteria.

At about the same time, animal studies (see here and here) linked rotenone exposure to Parkinson’s-like symptoms. And perhaps because of these studies, and the fear that EPA would use them to limit rotenone’s use, pesticide companies began to voluntarily “ask” to withdraw their rotenone registrations and to “terminate all rotenone uses on livestock, residential and home owner use, domestic pet uses, and all other uses except for piscicide (fish kill) uses.” EPA indicated the
withdrawals would be accepted and that it would allow existing stocks to be used until March 2008.

Then in 2007, when EPA finalized its re-registration of rotenone [pdf], these exposures were not evaluated, since companies had established their intent to withdraw use of rotenone on agriculture, livestock, pets, and in the home or garden.

And that should have been that, but somehow things fell through the cracks and rotenone’s presence in over-the-counter pesticides has continued. How? No idea. What I can tell you is that in July 2010, EPA for the first time issued an actual order canceling the use of rotenone in 16 of the 20 products that were part of the original withdrawal request back in 2006, specifying that sale of existing stocks can continue until July 14, 2011 — that would be five months from now and several years later than the 2008 date specified by EPA in 2006.

Two weeks after its July order, EPA issued a Federal Register notice that 11 other companies were voluntarily requesting to cancel their rotenone registrations for 16 different products (including some of those that I had Googled) with the provision that these products can still be distributed and sold until May 2011.

So clearly, despite what news outlets and agencies like the NIH might say, rotenone products can still be purchased, and purchased, for all intents and purposes, with the tacit approval of EPA. And it is not at all clear to me that all rotenone-containing pesticides will be removed from the marketplace by the July 2011 date specified in EPA’s 2010 order. Indeed, both EPA notices from last summer state that “the registrants’ requests will not terminate the last rotenone product registered in the United States.” Maybe those remaining registrations are for piscicide use only, but maybe not. My recommendation? If you use pesticides, read the label very carefully before putting it into your shopping cart, virtual or physical. As is often the case when shopping in the chemical marketplace: caveat emptor.

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