Velsicol Chemical Co. and the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) announced October 1 an agreement that takes the termite-killing pesticide chlordane off the market for a time, possibly even forever. Most sales of chlordane are banned as of November 30, 1987, and all sales are banned as of April 30, 1988. However, the purpose of the ban is to allow the chemical's only manufacturer, Velsicol, to find new ways to apply the chemical beneath homes without contaminating indoor air. If Velsicol demonstrates they can do this, chlordane will be back on the market. "This only bans sale, not use," said Jay Feldman of the National Coalition Against Misuse of Pesticides, with obvious dissatisfaction.
A related chemical, heptachlor is also covered by the chlordane agreement and its sales will be phased out as well.
Chlordane causes cancer in laboratory mice and is listed by the EPA as a "suspected human carcinogen." It can also cause liver damage and nerve damage in exposed humans and animals. The chemical is pumped into the ground beneath one million U.S. homes each year to kill termites; chlordane accounts for 2/3rds of the termite control business in the U.S., a business dominated by Orkin and Terminix.
The agreement was announced in a federal court one day before the EPA was reportedly going to announce a true ban on the chemical. Under federal law, if the EPA had announced such a ban the agency would have been required to purchase all existing stocks of the chemical and dispose of them (probably by incineration). The agreement saved EPA a lot of money and trouble; the existing stocks will now be disposed of by being pumped beneath homes. John A. Moore of EPA denied that financial considerations played any part in the EPA's decision to accept the agreement and forget the ban. He said federal law would have required the agency to declare chlordane an "imminent hazard" before a ban would stick. In addition, he argued that the agreement gets chlordane out of use more quickly than a ban because Velsicol could have appealed a ban and a federal pesticide appeal can take many years, during which time use of the pesticide goes on.
Chlordane is one of a group of pesticides called cyclodienes; others in the class are heptachlor, aldrin and dieldrin. They were developed 40 years ago when almost everyone embraced chemical bug killers enthusiastically. Now cyclodienes are known to cause nerve damage to exposed humans. They cause dizziness, headaches, muscle spasms and nausea. In 1978, EPA banned agricultural use of chlordane because of the cancer risk. Its use in termite control was allow to continue because the agency believed no chlordane would enter homes.
True, in the '70s the Air Force had given the EPA evidence that chlordane applied by the book had contaminated indoor air in homes of Air Force personnel. However Velsicol disputed the evidence and the EPA backed off. Then in early 1987 Velsicol itself came forth with a study showing that proper treatment of homes had resulted in substantial contamination of indoor air. The EPA had evidence on which to act. Still it did not act.
Then in September, 1987, a coalition of environmental and labor groups went to court seeking an emergency
suspension of chlordane. Only then did EPA get together with Velsicol and work out the agreement.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: chlordane; pesticides; insecticides; velsicol; bans; heptachlor; carcinogens; cancer; termites; epa; zero discharge; indoor air pollution;