Many pesticides that have been banned or are being phased out in the European Union, Brazil and China are still widely used in the United States. The U.S. is taking a different approach to banning than the world's other agricultural giants are. While once the Environmental Protection Agency took the lead in the removal of pesticides that prompted safety concerns, for at least two decades it has been relying on industry to voluntarily remove contentious chemicals.

A recent study describes some of the drawbacks of this approach. First, industry tends to remove pesticides that don't affect their bottom line much, chemicals the use of which has already dropped so much that they have become less economically viable, instead of the ones that are suspected of causing the most harm. Second, voluntary cancellations generally allow a contentious pesticide to remain in use much longer than the EPA's typical one-year phase out.

About a quarter of all pesticides applied in the U.S. in 2016 — 322 million pounds worth — were pesticides that had been banned in the EU over safety concerns.

Take the banned pesticide aldicarb. A 2010 agreement permitted the manufacturer to continue production for another four years, followed by a four-year phase out, allowing the chemical to remain in use for eight years after the agreement was reached.

Since 1970, the EPA has unilaterally prohibited an agricultural pesticide from entering the market or canceled its approval, as it did with DDT, 37 times. Only five of these instances have occurred since the year 2000.

This hands-off approach has led to the situation we have today: about a quarter of all pesticides applied in the U.S. in 2016 — 322 million pounds worth — were pesticides that had been banned in the EU over safety concerns.

The study, which looked at pesticide use through 2016, concludes that: “Without a change in the…EPA’s current reliance on voluntary mechanisms for pesticide cancellations, the USA will likely lag behind its peers in banning these harmful pesticides.” This prediction has already been borne out. Recently, the EU voted to ban the pesticide chlorothalonil, due to health and environmental concerns. Chlorothalonil is a pesticide used to control fungi that threaten vegetables, trees, fruits, tur, and other agricultural crops.

The EPA's policy also has implications for antibiotic resistance, since it allows and even encourages the spraying of medically important antibiotics. In 2018, the EPA approved the use of oxytetracycline on citrus crops, an approval that could increase its agricultural use by 388,000 pounds per year — 130,000 pounds more than all the tetracyclines dispensed annually in human medicine in the U.S.

There is a similar increase in streptomycin use, which the EPA proposed at the end of 2018, suggesting that the agricultural use of these antibiotics will continue to rise, along with a corresponding increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Unless of course, the EPA changes its approach.

For more details, see the study, published in the open access journal Environmental Health.