EPA Ruling Capricious, Local Business Owners Say

Published May 8, 2010 in Ventura County Star

Federal regulators have imposed new restrictions on a fumigant used to kill rodents after the deaths of two young girls in Utah, a move criticized by some in Ventura County and elsewhere as premature and an overreaction.

“They had their minds pretty well made up,” said Rex Baker, a former deputy agricultural commissioner in San Diego County, professor emeritus of chemical pest management at Cal Poly Pomona and a licensed chemical applicator. “What bothers me most is that they acted without considering the science.”

At issue are phosphine fumigants, including aluminum phosphide, a compound that comes in pellet form and is used by pest control operators to kill gophers and ground squirrels.

In February, an exterminator dropped aluminum phosphide pellets into rodent burrow holes outside the home of a Layton, Utah, family. All six family members were hospitalized the next day, and two girls — 4-year-old Rebecca Toone and her 15-month-old sister, Rachel — later died.

Investigators believe fumigant gas collected in an open space under a porch and seeped into the house. The exterminator was charged recently with two counts of negligent homicide, a misdemeanor.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in April announced new restrictions on outdoor use of aluminum and magnesium phosphide products. Indoor use has long been prohibited.

The EPA prohibited all use in residential areas, including around single- and multifamily properties, nursing and day care facilities, hospitals, and schools (except on athletic fields). The EPA also required new product labeling.

The fumigants still can be used in agricultural areas, golf courses, parks, cemeteries and other places where people don’t congregate inside unventilated spaces, as long as signs are posted and the application is at least 100 feet from any building occupied by people or animals. The old buffer zone was 15 feet.

Paul Towers of Pesticide Watch in Sacramento said the EPA’s decision is a smart one.

“In our minds, there are better preventive measures, better landscapes to use,” said Towers. “The Utah case proves clearly that aluminum phosphide and people don’t mix.”

Dale Kemery, an EPA spokesman in Washington, D.C,, said by e-mail, “Phosphide pesticide products, while effective, are extremely toxic to humans and can result in injuries and death if used inappropriately.”

Local businessmen object

Some local pest control operators, however, are unhappy with the decision, saying it severely affects their trade by removing one of the most effective treatments for ridding landscapes of gophers and other burrowing rodents.

“The misuse of the product in Utah is being used to destroy a whole industry,” said Ty Brann, owner of Kastle Kare in Camarillo and a licensed chemical applicator. “I feel bad about what happened in Utah — I’m a father too — but I’ve applied aluminum phosphide for 15 years without a problem. I respected the chemical, and the label was law.”

Brann said about 40 percent of his business is gopher abatement, and the alternative treatments are not nearly as effective. Other “gopher bait is dangerous because it hangs around and other animals get it,” said Brann. “The phosphides just dissolve into the soil.”

Terry Hobbs conducts pest and rodent control for the Conejo Unified School District. “I was hired because the school district was facing six lawsuits for more than $100,000 each because of broken legs and ankles due to gopher holes,” said Hobbs, a former pesticide inspector for the Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office and a certified chemical applicator.

“I’ve been doing this for 23 years on school fields, always following the label, and I’ve never had a problem with the chemical. I know how to use it and follow the rules,” Hobbs said.

Reconsideration sought

Baker said the EPA bowed to political pressure and didn’t consult experts. He said he and a team of scientists researched aluminum phosphide extensively more than 10 years ago. Their studies became the basis for loosening restrictions on the fumigant.

According to Baker, there have been more than 1 million applications of aluminum phosphide in California without a problem over the past 30 years.

In California, aluminum and magnesium phosphides already were designated as “restricted-use materials,” meaning you need a permit from a county agricultural commissioner before using them, according to Lea Brooks, assistant director of communications for the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.

“Commissioners have authority to impose more stringent restrictions than the label to reflect local conditions. California is the only state with such a pesticide permitting system,” she said.

Baker said he has sent an e-mail to the EPA asking it to reconsider the decision.

“They made the decision before facts were known (in the Utah case). Were there cracks in the ground that leaked the fumes? How much chemical was used? They folded to public opinion,” he said.