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Tuesday, December 26, 2000
By Margot Higgins
Fenthion, a pesticide used to kill mosquitos, may be the cause of death for thousands of birds in Florida.
Thousands of birds are dropping dead in Florida, and conservation groups are citing fenthion, a pesticide used to control mosquitoes, as the cause. Millions of migratory birds that rely on habitat in Florida as breeding or resting grounds are at risk, the groups claim.
"As the Environmental Protection Agency reviews its regulations for the fenthion, the American Bird Conservancy is fighting for the cancellation of all fenthion uses in the U.S. except for public health emergencies during disease outbreaks, " said Linda Farley, a science officer for the organization's Pesticides and Birds Campaign.
Most states have banned fenthion, but Florida continues to spray 222,400 to 333,600 pounds of the pesticide over 2 million acres each year.
Among the bird fatalities in Florida is the piping plover, a shorebird resembling a sandpiper. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently reported the mortality of 16 bird species to the EPA's Office of Prevention Pesticides following a two-year study. Among the casualties are sanderlings, dunlin, black skimmers and endangered piping plovers, all from areas in where fenthion had been applied.
Although most organophosphate pesticides harm birds through their intake of food and water, fenthion is highly toxic to birds when absorbed through their skin or inhaled. The pesticide is usually distributed by helicopter using a method that allows it to remain in the air for long periods of time.
The duration increases exposure and allows the pesticide to travel farther across the landscape. If rain falls shortly after the application of fenthion, the risk of contact rises significantly, scientists note, as birds forage in contaminated, wet foliage and bathe in or drink puddles of toxic water.
Most birds killed in the wild go unnoticed, conservation groups note, because scavengers quickly remove their carcasses. Similar to DDT, a pesticide that was banned in the early 1970s, fenthion accumulates in the fatty tissue of animals and can be passed on through the food chain to concentrate in top-level consumers.
The pesticide may pose health problems to humans as well.
According to the EPA, current applications of fenthion might endanger children because they wash their hands less frequently than adults and have greater contact with grass and other vegetation containing the pesticide.
While profit in fenthion sales is minimal in the United States, the international market for the pesticide is extremely lucrative. Fenthion is recommended by Bayer as an insecticide for coffee and citrus, vital crops for Latin America and habitat for many species of birds.
"The U.S. provides the regulatory standard for other nations with limited resources devoted to scientific testing of the environmental and human health impacts of pesticides," Farley said. "A primary reason the American Bird Conservancy wants to see fenthion cancelled in the U.S. is to set an example for other nations."
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