Battle over phosphine

by Teresa Acklin
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U.S. milling, grain industries move to head off proposed restrictions on use of the fumigant.

By Stormy Wylie

   The U.S grain and milling industry may have to accept some new regulations on the use of phosphine in the hopes of averting other regulations that could preclude any use of the fumigant, according to an official with the North American Millers' Association.

   Jim Bair, vice-president of the Washington, D.C.-based organization, said that even though the industry may disagree with the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed regulations, to oppose every component of the proposals is a “failing strategy.”

    “We are going to have to identify some elements we can live with and embrace them,” Mr. Bair told World Grain. “It's up to us to create a win-win situation and give E.P.A. something they can move forward on.”

   The E.P.A. in late December published 15 proposals (see box on Page 14) aimed at reducing the risks associated with phosphine, a fumigant primarily used to control insects and rodents in facilities where grain and other agricultural commodities are stored. The agency established a 90-day public comment period on the proposed regulations and has planned stakeholder meetings in Kansas City, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, after which the rules could be adopted, modified or rejected.

   The impact of these regulations on the U.S. grain and milling industry could be enormous, Mr. Bair said. Phosphine is widely used around the world to control pests in grain that is in storage or in transit. It primarily comes in the form of aluminum or magnesium phosphide tablets, which produce phosphine gas when the tablets react with moisture in the air. Phosphine gas cylinders are increasingly being used in countries like Australia and China, but have not been approved for use in the United States.

   As opposed to insecticides, which work only on the surface of grain, fumigants such as phosphine and methyl bromide are the only pesticide that can penetrate a grain kernel or grain mass.

   Phosphine and methyl bromide are the only major fumigants labeled for food use in the United States, and the use of methyl bromide is being phased out by the year 2005.

   “The irony is notable that we have one division within the E.P.A. trying to ban methyl bromide because an alternative exists and another division in the E.P.A. trying to ban the alternative,” Mr. Bair said.

   NAMA is part of a coalition of more than 40 organizations that met in January to draft a first response to the proposed regulations on aluminum and magnesium phosphide. Other industry groups in the coalition include the National Grain and Feed Association, the American Bakers Association, the National Pasta Association and the USA Rice Federation.

   Tom O'Connor with the N.G.F.A. said his organization is very concerned about the proposed regulations. “Aluminum phosphide is the last fumigant we can use in the industry to protect the quality of grain in storage,” he said. “We believe it is very safe and believe some of the measures the E.P.A. is proposing are extreme and threaten the use of this valuable fumigation tool.”

   But Mr. Bair of NAMA said the industry may have to accept such proposals as additional training and certification for applicators and greater incident reporting to win the battle for those proposals that he called “unacceptable.” These include a 500-foot buffer zone around fumigated structures, notification of all residents within 750 feet of fumigated structures and lowering the exposure standard from 0.3 ppm to 0.03 ppm.

   The industry supports even better stewardship, including enhanced training for applicators and greater incident reporting, Mr. Bair said. “We're the good guys here,” he said. “The industry has a great record on usage of phosphine.”

   In the 40 years that phosphine has been used as a fumigant in the U.S., 12 deaths have been attributed to the chemical. “One accident is too many; that is not the point,” Mr. Bair said. “But all of these deaths could have been prevented had the current rules been followed.”

   The industry needs to take a strong stand on opposing other regulations, he said, particularly the requirement of a 500-foot buffer zone around fumigated structures. “Most flour mills are not located on greenfield sites,” Mr. Bair said. “They are in town, next door to the lumberyard or the grocery store or across the street from the gas station. It's just not practical.”

   Mr. Bair said he surveyed NAMA's membership regarding the feasibility of a 500-foot buffer zone. Of the 32 companies he polled, 123 of the 206 flour mills and grain elevators involved would be precluded from ever using phosphine if the 500-foot buffer zone was implemented. “That's obviously unacceptable,” he said.

   The E.P.A.'s proposal to reduce the exposure standards for phosphine gas to 0.03 ppm — 1/10th the level considered safe by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration — has no scientific justification, he added. “We're not even sure we have the ability to detect phosphine at levels that low,” he said.

   Some equipment has measured levels at 0.05 ppm, but that was in a laboratory setting, Mr. Bair said. He questioned how feasible it would be for a country elevator or flour mill to measure phosphine levels that low around the perimeter of a facility.

   “The E.P.A. didn't do their homework on this,” Mr. Bair said. “They went out so far, so fast, that backing up became impossible. Now, we need to help them come up with something we can live with and understand what is workable and what is not.”


   Mark Hartman, chemical review manager for E.P.A., Washington, D.C., said that is exactly what the agency hopes to accomplish by soliciting public comment and holding stakeholders meetings. “These are proposals,” Mr. Hartman said. “The agency is very sincere in that we will go through the stakeholders process and try to find alternative measures that are more implementable in the field. We're not trying to cripple the grain industry.”

   The E.P.A. is currently re-registering a number of chemicals that were initially registered before Nov. 1, 1984; aluminum and magnesium phosphide are two of these chemicals. E.P.A. said the re-registration process ensures that these older pesticides meet contemporary health and safety standards, that their labeling is improved and that their risks are reduced.

   Mr. Hartman said the agency was primarily concerned with the inhalation toxicity of phosphine to handlers and bystanders — especially people who live near structures being fumigated with the chemical. “There have been a couple of incidents,” he said, in which residential bystanders may have been affected by the chemical during a fumigation.

   The E.P.A., in its Reregistration Eligibility Decision on phosphine, seems especially concerned by two incidents allegedly related to phosphine. In one case, an elderly woman who lived in close proximity to a grain elevator died shortly after a fumigation operation. Her husband also reported uncontrollable shakiness of the hands and feet, diarrhea, headache, burning gums, lips and teeth, skin irritation, dry mouth and throat and watering eyes — all symptoms of organophosphate poisoning, the E.P.A. said.

   In another instance, a pregnant woman who lived about 30 yards from a grain storage facility that was being fumigated also died.

   Mr. Hartman said that even though there has been no definite cause-and-effect relationship between these deaths and the phosphine fumigations, the agency looked for “any indication in the real world” that would support its risk assessment. “It makes us pause to look at these things very closely,” he said.

   Vern Walter, a Texas-based fumigation expert and industry consultant who served as an expert witness in the lawsuit involving the pregnant woman's family, said that in his opinion the evidence was inconclusive whether phosphine poisoning caused the woman's death. The case was settled out of court.

   Mr. Walter said that phosphine dissipates quickly once released into the air and that all indications are that the chemical is safe if handled properly. “No one on the E.P.A. chemical risk assessment team is an experienced, commercial fumigator, nor have members of the committee viewed a variety of commercial fumigations,” he said.

   Mr. O'Connor with the National Grain and Feed Association agreed. “They (E.P.A.) have unnecessarily raised alarm in the public in an unwarranted way,” he said. “This was a rush to judgment.”

   But Mr. Hartman with the E.P.A. said the agency analyzed scientific evidence from studies that were provided by the companies that manufacture or sell the chemicals. The agency also considers “anecdotal evidence,” he said, such as illnesses or fatalities that may have been caused by the chemical. “We do have a concern with risk to the public,” Mr. Hartman said. “Our first job is to make sure those risks are addressed.” The public comment period and stakeholders meetings offers those involved in the manufacture or use of phosphine to make suggestions or offer alternatives to these proposals, he said.


   Currently, there are no chemical alternatives to phosphine, he admitted. “We recognize that there are not a lot of viable alternatives,” Mr. Hartman said. “But there may be some under development that we're not aware of. As we go through this process, we may find out there are alternatives that make sense.”

   If no alternatives exist for phosphine, said Vern Walter, “it has not been for lack of looking.” He added, “Even if manufacturers knew of a viable alternative, it would be five years or more before it could be on the market.”

   George Luzaich, president of Degesch America, Inc., Weyers Cave, Virginia, said that he and other manufacturers are committed to the safest possible use of their products. Some of the E.P.A.'s proposed risk mitigation measures are worthy of consideration, he said.

   “In some instances, the proposed R.M.M.s give label status to existing state and local laws or are already considered good fumigation practices,” Mr. Luzaich said. “Some of the R.M.M.s are impractical and would not, as E.P.A. contends, make for safer fumigations. It is our belief that the long history of safe usage of these products require that E.P.A. study this issue very carefully before making a rash policy decision based on incomplete or inaccurate data.”

   Mr. Hartman of the E.P.A. said the agency could agree to vary its requirements based on the type of facility or structure being treated. “We may treat a ship differently than we'd treat a tobacco warehouse,” he said. “We recognize that there are a variety of use sites, and by the nature of that site different standards may be appropriate.”

   The E.P.A. is taking “extraordinary steps,” Mr. Hartman said, to make the process works for everyone involved. “We know that people are afraid that this is just a rubber-stamping process. Our biggest fear is that people will not take the time to develop alternatives. We want them to come up with something that addresses the risk but in a way that makes the most sense.”

   Mr. Bair of NAMA said he did not believe that proposing far-reaching regulations as a way to gather information was efficient, warranted or wise. But he and other industry leaders seem hopeful that they can work with E.P.A. to reach some compromise.

   Don Mennel, president of Mennel Milling Co., Fostoria, Ohio, said he believed that the industry could work with E.P.A. to modify the proposals “to a degree that is realistic.”

   Bob Richardson, manager of inspection services for General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, and chairman of the Association of Operative Millers' food protection committee, agreed that there were some issues the two groups could agree on, such as increased training and education on safe handling. “If there are people who have ignored what they should have been doing, then shame on them,” Mr. Richardson said. “But writing more rules for people who ignore the rules doesn't make anything safer.”

E.P.A.'S Proposed Regulations on Phosphine

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in its Reregistration Eligibility Decision on phosphine, has proposed several risk mitigation measures on the use of the fumigant. These proposed regulations include:
1. Development of a certification program, in cooperation with E.P.A. and the states.
2. A requirement that all persons who conduct fumigation to be certified applicators or be
within 50 feet of a certified applicator.
3. Notification of authorities and on-site workers 24 hours before fumigation.
4. Notification of local residents within 750 feet of the structure to be fumigated.
5. A 500-foot buffer zone and restricted area around all fumigated structures to prevent exposure to residential bystanders.
6. Seal/leak testing prior to fumigation. Leaks would have to be repaired prior to fumigation.
7. Requirement of a two-man operation for entry into a fumigated structure.
8. A requirement that respiratory protection be worn during fumigations, unless monitoring shows that phosphine concentrations are at or below the established standard of 0.03 ppm.
9. Additional monitoring around fumigated structures. In addition, no fumigated structure could be reentered until phosphine concentrations declined to 0.03 ppm or less, unless appropriate personal protective equipment was worn.
10. A prohibition on aerating fumigated rail cars and other vehicles while in transit.
11. More thorough monitoring of fumigated commodities.
12. Establishment of an incident reporting program.
13. Placarding of fumigated structures, containers and vehicles.
14. Establishment and definition of applicable exposure limits on product labels.
A 90-day public comment period on the E.P.A.'s Reregistration Eligibility Decision (RED) document for phosphine ends March 23. Two national stakeholders meetings will be held in Kansas City, Missouri, and Sacramento, California; dates have not yet been determined.
Written comments about the proposed regulations should be sent to the Pesticide Docket, Public Information and Records Integrity Branch, Information Resources and Services Division (7506C), Office of Pesticide Programs, Environmental Protection Agency, 401 M St., SW, Washington D.C. 20460. Tel: 703-305-5805. Comments also may be submitted electronically to