Farm pesticide may be taken off market Product blamed for killing birds banned in Va.

May 13, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

A popular farm pesticide blamed for poisoning many birds may be taken off the market in Maryland by its manufacturer, FMC Corp., as part of an agreement to phase out the highly toxic chemical nationwide over the next several years.

FMC, the producer of Furadan, has proposed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the granular form of its pesticide be withdrawn from use in "sensitive" areas next year, particularly where it has been linked with deaths of bald eagles and other federally protected birds.

"FMC has proposed taking its product out of the coastal states where the eagle danger is greatest and where they're under the most political pressure," said George Gilliam, chairman of Virginia's Pesticide Control Board.

The Virginia panel voted last Friday to ban use of the pesticide in that state effective June 1 after laboratory tests confirmed that Furadan killed birds found in seven of nine cornfields monitored this spring under an FMC-sponsored "risk-reduction" program.

Earlier last week, about the same time that Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder recommended the pesticide be banned, FMC offered to stop selling granular Furadan in that state by Sept. 1.

A similar withdrawal in Maryland may be announced this week, though spokesmen for FMC and EPA both refused to discuss the details of negotiations that have been under way between the parties at least since March.

EPA spokesman Al Heier said an announcement is expected tomorrow on the fate of carbofuran, the common name for FMC's product. Heier said he could not confirm whether the announcement includes voluntary withdrawals of Furadan from certain states, such as Maryland.

FMC spokesman Jeff Jacoby would say only that "there are a number of geographic locations being discussed" for possible bans of granular Furadan.

But Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, a private wildlife hospital in Weyer's Cave, said that minutes he obtained of negotiations between EPA and FMC officials indicate that they have been discussing a severe cutback in Furadan production over the next four years.

FMC has proposed stopping Furadan sales in "sensitive" areas by next year, Clark said, and Gilliam said that company officials apparently plan at first to shift the stocks sold in such states to the Midwestern corn belt.

EPA officials have proposed that granular carbofuran production capped next year and then dramatically reduced to no more than 2,000 pounds a year in 1995 for a few limited uses for which there apparently are no good substitutes, Clark said.

EPA originally proposed banning most uses of granular Furadan nationwide more than two years ago, in January 1989, four years after launching a special review of the pesticide because of concerns about its toxicity to birds.

Numerous bird kills have been linked to granular Furadan, which is used to control soil-borne pests when planting corn and a variety of other crops. Furadan has been a special concern around the Chesapeake Bay because it was linked by wildlife officials to bald eagle deaths in Virginia and Maryland in 1985, 1986 and 1988.

There have been no bird kills blamed on Furadan in Maryland since 1988, but several have occurred in Virginia, including the deaths last summer of more than 200 blackbirds. Wildlife officials say documented pesticide poisonings are rare because birds often die unseen in the wild.

Birds apparently mistake the tiny pesticide granules for food, and birds of prey, such as eagles, die from feeding on poisoned animals and birds.

Clark contended that Virginia's bird kills this spring prove that there is no safe way to use granular Furadan, and he contended that EPA should not delay in taking the product off the shelves.

"They have no reason for continuing use of this chemical for any crop," Clark said. He also urged states such as Maryland to follow Virginia's lead in banning the pesticide immediately if EPA does not.

"Maryland has just as much at stake as Virginia," Clark said. "What we have found is irrefutable. For any other state to delay responding to this is simply to ignore the obvious."

FMC stopped Virginia from banning the pesticide last year after pledging to educate farmers and provide them with special equipment intended to ensure that the chemical is planted safely in the ground, not left to lie on the surface where birds may find it. Maryland agriculture officials agreed with FMC on a similar, but far less stringent monitoring program.

Mary Ellen Setting, chief of pesticide regulation for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said she was unaware of any impending withdrawal of Furadan from the state by FMC. She said no bird kills had been reported this spring, but state officials were not looking for dead birds, as Virginia wildlife officials were.

Michael Heller, a member of Maryland's pesticide advisory council and manager of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's organic farm, said events in Virginia this spring should be examined to see if regulatory action is warranted here.

Maryland farmers used about 260,000 pounds of Furadan in 1988, making it the ninth most popular pesticide in the state, according to a state agriculture department survey. Its use has dropped 57 percent since 1985, when EPA first announced its special review of the chemical's risks to wildlife.

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