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The San Francisco Chronicle

Government Sued After Approving 4 Pesticides

Bob Egelko

Environmental and farmworker advocates have sued the Bush administration for allowing the continued use of four pesticides, saying the government brushed aside its own findings that the chemicals are dangerous to workers, children and wildlife.

The suit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, challenged the Environmental Protection Agency's decision in 2006 to reauthorize the four pesticides sprayed on fruit and vegetable fields in California.

A 1996 federal law required the EPA to reassess the safety of all pesticides used on foods and decide by 2006 whether to approve their use. Patti Goldman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the agency found that four substances posed risks to human health but concluded their cost savings to growers outweighed the dangers.

"These four pesticides put thousands of farmworkers and their families at risk of serious illness every year," said Goldman, of the nonprofit firm Earthjustice.

EPA spokesman Tim Lyons said the agency would review the lawsuit and respond in court. Lyons declined to comment on the EPA's decision to approve the pesticides, but said, "Our mission is to protect the environment and human health."

California officials have classified one of the pesticides, ethoprop, as a cancer-causing substance. The state requires manufacturers to disclose that risk on product labels but cannot ban the pesticide because of the EPA approval. The suit said the pesticide, used mainly on potatoes, sugarcane and tobacco, has been linked to fish kills and has also drifted from fields into rural communities.

Another substance, methidathion, was listed as an air contaminant by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation earlier this year because of potential health hazards. It is used on artichokes, oranges, almonds, peaches and olives, mostly in California.

The other two pesticides are methamidophos, used mostly on potatoes and cotton, and oxydemeton-methyl, used on broccoli, lettuce, cauliflower, corn, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. The suit said both have been associated with bird kills. Methamidophos has been banned or severely restricted in several countries, and oxydemeton-methyl is linked to birth defects, according to the suit.

"We're relying on EPA's findings that the risks were too high," said Goldman, the plaintiffs' lawyer.

She said federal law allows the agency to approve continued use of risky pesticides based on offsetting benefits, including cost savings. But Goldman said the EPA failed to address the particular danger each pesticide poses to children, or to take adequate account of the potential harms to birds and fish as well as farmworkers.

The suit seeks a court order requiring the agency to re-evaluate the pesticides. Plaintiffs include the United Farm Workers, the Teamsters, Pesticide Action Network North America, Beyond Pesticides and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle

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