WASHINGTON -- Businesses voluntarily will not use parathion, among the most poisonous of pesticides, on most vegetable and fruit crops by the end of the year in an agreement with the government announced yesterday.
The Environmental Protection Agency is also moving toward a total ban on the chemical, which is used on crops ranging from apples and peaches to sunflowers and wheat.
After Dec. 31, parathion, the common name for ethyl parathion, will be allowed on only nine crops: alfalfa, barley, canola, corn, cotton, sorghum, soybeans, sunflower and wheat -- all of which are harvested mechanically.
The voluntary ban will prevent use on about 81 crops, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and other products that farm workers harvest by hand.
Contact during application poses the highest danger. Parathion has been blamed in the deaths of at least 72 farm workers since 1965, EPA officials said.
There are no reports of poisoning from food treated with the chemical.
The chemical interferes with basic nerve functions. Symptoms range from headaches, nausea, vomiting and general weakness to muscle spasms, coma and death.
"It is an old chemical. It is very cheap. It is very effective. It is very toxic," said Linda Fisher, EPA administrator for pesticides and toxics.
The voluntary agreement will cut in half the 3 million to 6 million pounds of parathion applied annually. Completing the regulatory process to a total ban should take about 18 months, EPA officials said.
Environmentalists accused the EPA of needless delay. Predicting that a total ban could be mired in legal fights for years, environmentalists said the agency should have used its emergency powers to suspend all use immediately.
"The headlines of today are reversed by the small print of tomorrow," said Jay Feldman, head of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides.