Pesticides on Tobacco:

Federal Activities to Assess Risks and Monitor Residues

GAO-03-485: Published: Mar 26, 2003. Publicly Released: Apr 24, 2003.

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Pesticides play a significant role in increasing production of tobacco, food, and other crops by reducing the number of crop-destroying pests. However, if used improperly, pesticides can have significant adverse health effects. GAO was asked to (1) identify the pesticides commonly used on tobacco crops and the potential health risks associated with them, (2) determine how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assesses and mitigates health risks associated with pesticides used on tobacco, and (3) assess the extent to which federal agencies regulate and test for pesticide residues on tobacco.

In the 1990s, domestic growers commonly used 37 pesticides approved for use on tobacco by EPA. Most of these pesticides were also used on food crops. When used in ways that deviate from conditions set by EPA, many of these pesticides can cause moderate to severe respiratory and neurological damage--and may result in death. Moreover, animal studies suggest that some of these pesticides may cause birth defects or cancer. Under its pesticide registration program, EPA evaluates toxicity and other data to assess health risks to workers and the public from exposure to pesticides--and risks to smokers from exposure to residues in smoke. These assessments have identified a range of risks that required such mitigation as limiting where and how the pesticide may be used, prohibiting use in certain states, and requiring workers to wear respirators and chemical-resistant clothing. On the other hand, EPA has concluded that low levels of residues in tobacco smoke do not pose short-term health concerns requiring mitigation. EPA does not assess intermediate or long-term risks to smokers because of the severity of health effects linked to use of tobacco products themselves. While EPA regulates the specific pesticides that may be used on tobacco and other crops and specifies how the pesticides may be used, it does not otherwise regulate residues of pesticides approved for use on tobacco. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), however, is required by the Dairy and Tobacco Adjustment Act to test imported and domestic tobacco for residues of pesticides not approved by EPA for use on tobacco that federal officials believe are used in other countries. By helping ensure that other countries do not use highly toxic pesticides that U.S. tobacco growers may not use, federal regulation of pesticide residues on tobacco addresses trade equity as well as health and environmental issues. However, USDA has not reevaluated the list of pesticides for which it tests since 1989, even though EPA has cancelled tobacco use for over 30 pesticides since then.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better protect the public from exposures to residues of pesticides not approved for use on tobacco in the United States and ensure that domestic tobacco producers are not placed at an unfair disadvantage relative to producers in other countries, the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should direct the Administrators of the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Farm Service Agency to periodically review and update the pesticides for which they set residue limits and test imported and domestic tobacco.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA has implemented GAO's recommendation to periodically review and update the pesticides for which the department sets residue limits and tests tobacco, thereby better protecting the public from exposures to residues of pesticides not approved for use on tobacco in the United States and ensuring that domestic tobacco producers are not placed at an unfair disadvantage relative to producers in other countries. Specifically, at the time of GAO's review in 2003, USDA tested tobacco for 20 pesticides using 15 residue limits (some including multiple pesticides). In response to GAO's recommendation, in 2004, USDA identified 16 other pesticides to test for. Under a voluntary program with the tobacco industry initiated in 2005, USDA currently tests imported and domestic tobacco for 36 pesticides using 44 residue limits (including metabolites, isomers, and degradatees) according to the Deputy Administrator, Science and Technology Programs, AMS/USDA. Further, USDA tests domestic tobacco for some additional pesticides at the request of tobacco manufacturers. The new residue limits cover three pesticides GAO identified as potential candidates for testing: lindane, trichlorfon, and diazinon. USDA and the tobacco industry will periodically review and update the pesticides for which USDA will establish residue limits and test tobacco.

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