(Beyond pesticides, February 8, 2022) After nearly a century of use, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is officially canceling pentachlorophenol (penta), a highly toxic wood preservative. As one of the most dangerous pesticides ever produced, penta poses unacceptable risks to workers and surrounding communities, which have often become superfund sites once manufacturing plants have closed. According to the agency, “During the registration review process, the EPA found that given the emergence of viable alternatives, the health risks that pentachlorophenol poses to worker health outweigh the benefits of its use. Health and environmental advocates are pleased with the agency’s long-awaited action on penta, but remain in disbelief that the EPA has planned a generous phase-out for the utility and conservation industry. wood, allowing use to continue for up to 5 years. Beyond Pesticides has worked to ban pentachlorophenol, creosote, and chromium copper arsenate since its inception in 1981. (See Beyond Pesticides Labor and Litigation History.)

The EPA’s statement on alternatives and worker health is a telling example to the public of how the agency consistently puts economic decisions above the safety of Americans. The EPA has long been aware of the health hazards of penta, particularly the health of workers in penta-producing or processing plants. In 2008, the agency determined that these professional handlers had a 1 in 1,000 risk of developing cancer. Rather than cancel the chemical at this time to protect worker health, the agency opted to attempt additional mitigation measures, requiring more personal protective equipment, engineering controls and changes to treatment procedures. In the absence of real evidence that it would make a difference, the agency expected these changes to reduce workers’ cancer risk. However, in its most recent draft risk assessment, the EPA found that this extremely high cancer risk remained the same. (The EPA considers cancer risks between 1 in 10,000 and 1 in 1,000,000 to be “acceptable.”)

A careful reading of the EPA statement makes it clear: workers were expendable until the wood preservation industry had economically viable alternative chemicals it could use. In fact, the EPA’s reversal decision still leaves workers at risk. According to the EPA’s decision document, the agency “considered requiring additional interim risk mitigation measures during the period prior to cancellation,” but decided against it because they “may take several years to adopt and require significant financial resources to implement”. “Instead, the EPA chose to give the wood preservation industry five more years to switch to other materials.

The agency will require registrants to voluntarily cancel their penta products by February 29, 2024. The EPA will then give registrants an additional 3 years to use up their remaining inventory of penta, placing a firm end date of February 29, 2027. In In a response to Beyond Pesticides’ comments, the agency says it will require mandatory cancellation if current licensees don’t voluntarily follow through.

The EPA’s rationale for phasing them out over 5 years is not to protect health or the environment. It’s just what the industry told the agency they wanted. “The Agency does not, however, support a phase-out period of less than 5 years due to potential disruption of the utility pole market,” reads the final decision. When Beyond Pesticides pointedly requested in the comments to speed up the cancellation period, the agency indicated that 5 years was an acceptable compromise as some commenters requested an elimination period of more than five years.

It should be noted that the agency has fully registered pesticides for periods of less than 5 years and has the power to immediately cancel dangerous chemicals – especially those like penta, which has a huge body of data on its damages that could withstand legal challenges from the industry. . In this context, the EPA’s approach to protection has been more focused on the wood preservation industry than on the environment, the health of workers or residents. At every turn, once the risks were identified, the EPA took action to keep penta in the marketplace and to protect industry interests over human health.

In the late 1970s, an early range of significant risks were identified and penta was given a special review by the EPA. The agency has identified a range of chronic harms from penta exposure, including contaminants such as hexachlorobenzene, furans and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, one of the most toxic substances known to mankind. . But industry pressure resulted in a soft pedal in which the EPA focused on “risk reduction measures” rather than eliminating them. Products were restricted to residential use, but significant use remained for railroads and utility lines. And rather than requiring improved production processes that eliminate dioxin contamination, the agency negotiated with industry to allow it to gradually reduce contamination levels over several years. (Despite decades of improved production processes, current EPA documents show that hexachlorobenzene and dioxin remain at dangerous levels of contamination in penta-treated wood. [19.3ppm and .55ppm average in 2013]).

Beyond Pesticides then sued the EPA in the early 2000s to seek cancellation of the chemical, but the lawsuit was eventually dismissed over administrative issues. In one notable case, EPA penta review papers calculated a cancer risk of 2.2 in 10,000 for children playing around treated poles. This rate was 200 times higher than the EPA’s acceptable cancer threshold for children. But rather than protect children, the EPA simply deleted the exposure scenario for children and echoed a claim by the Penta Council, an industry group, that “play activities with or around play structures poles would normally not occur”.

Similarly, when the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants took penta up for consideration for an international ban, the EPA and the U.S. government engaged in the process and opposed listing penta even though are not signatories to the Stockholm Convention. Ultimately, however, the United States failed to convince other nations that the risks were worth the supposed benefits of using penta.

To finally ban penta in the United States, it took grassroots advocates, fearless journalists and brave lawmakers to eliminate the wood preservative’s last economic opportunity. After the penta listed by the Stockholm convention, it has ticked production plants around the world. The last plant in Mexico was to be closed, leaving the United States as the only possible place where this internationally banned material could be produced. As a result, Gulbrandsen Chemicals, a multinational with ties to India, attempted to supply the US market by offering a penta plant in the predominantly low-income African-American community of Orangeburg, South Carolina. Residents and local lawmakers fought back. A series of high-profile investigative reports, community advocacy and political action eventually upended the plans made by this company, and Gulbrandsen Chemicals withdrew its proposal.

The EPA cited this fact under “other considerations,” which it used to justify the cancellation announcement. In its comments, Beyond Pesticides urged the agency to base its decisions not on “the uncertain future of pentachlorophenol production” but rather on FIFRA’s legal registration requirements that the chemical poses an unreasonable risk. . For its part, the EPA denies basing the cancellation on the uncertain future of penta production — this point was merely noted to provide context, according to the agency. The EPA reiterated that it based its decision on its risk/benefit calculation, as well as international support for banning penta. Opposing for manufacturers of wood preservatives, “The EPA expects the industry’s decision to cease production of pentachlorophenol will be a reflection, not a cause, of the same factors,” it read. in the agency’s final decision.

Despite its inability to take immediate action, the agency said: “[E]PA is requesting the cancellation of pentachlorophenol based on the Agency’s determination that the benefits of pentachlorophenol, particularly in light of the emergence of new, safer alternatives. . .”

To truly show that it evaluates unsafe wood preservatives based on the letter of the law, rather than industry musings, the EPA should take immediate action on other wood preservatives. who have viable alternatives. Chief among the others is creosote, which was recently featured on EPA Administrator Regan’s Journey to Justice tour, where he heard from residents of Houston, Texas’ Greater Fifth Ward, which is still struggling with contamination inherited from a creosote railway tie treatment plant.

Like penta, creosote production has caused immense hardship for workers and residents of the gated communities near these industrial sites. Like penta, there are a range of viable alternatives to its use, including alternative chemicals, as well as non-toxic ones like steel, concrete, and fiberglass. And like the penta, there is a small group of individuals who profit generously while people and the environment continue to be harmed. While the EPA should be applauded for finally canceling penta, its phase-out period is far too generous. If the agency wants advocates to see it is serious about protecting health and the environment, this action can only be the first step in broader and long overdue efforts to cleaning up the wood preservative market.

Beyond Pesticides has extensive documentation of the history of penta production and regulation. For more information, see the following articles:

See the Beyond Pesticides Wood Preservatives webpage.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this article are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: EPA Final Registration Review Decision for Pentachlorophenol (via Regulations.gov)