A coalition of public interest groups, including farmworker, health justice and conservation organizations, sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today for approving widespread spraying of streptomycin, a medically important antibiotic, on citrus trees to prevent or treat citrus greening disease or citrus canker. The practice of spraying antibiotics on trees has proven highly ineffective in combating these diseases, and it can drive antibiotic resistance in bacteria that threaten human health.
The EPA failed to ensure that the approved uses of streptomycin as a pesticide would not cause unreasonable harm to human health or the environment and failed to adequately assess impacts to endangered species, according to the lawsuit.
Streptomycin, which is banned from use on crops in many countries, belongs to a class of antibiotics the World Health Organization (WHO) considers “critically” important to treating human disease, such as multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have expressed concerns about the use of medically important antibiotics as pesticides and have spoken out publicly against it.
“Farmworkers are already exposed to a mix of toxic pesticides in the course of their daily work,” said Jeannie Economos, Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project Coordinator at Farmworker Association of Florida. “It is unconscionable for EPA to use farmworkers as guinea pigs when it comes to antibiotic-resistant bacteria that risks the health of them and their children. Instead of promoting this risky false solution, EPA should look at effective ways to control citrus diseases that are safe for our food supply and for the essential workers and their families who sustain our food system.”
The agency’s decision greenlights the use of more than 650,000 pounds of streptomycin on citrus crops in Florida and California alone. By contrast, the United States currently uses only about 14,000 pounds of aminoglycosides, the antibiotic class that includes streptomycin, for medical purposes each year.
The EPA’s approval of streptomycin as a pesticide followed a similar approval two years ago of the “highly” important antibiotic oxytetracycline for use on the same citrus crops.
“Allowing life-saving antibiotics to be used as pesticides is an unnecessary and dangerous practice that fuels a growing public health epidemic: antibiotic resistance,” said Allison Johnson, Sustainable Food Policy Advocate at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “The EPA should be championing agricultural practices that protect farm workers and their communities, public health, and the environment–like building healthy soil and diversified farming–not increasing the use of dangerous pesticides.”
Recent research suggests that antibiotic resistance is on the rise nationally, with an estimated 162,000 people in the United States dying each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. Furthermore, the misuse of antibiotics has fueled resistance in tuberculosis-causing bacteria; the global TB pandemic still kills more than 1 million people around the world every year.
“To jeopardize an essential tool in controlling the global tuberculosis pandemic by allowing it to be sprayed on citrus trees is the height of irresponsibility,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Leading global health officials are sounding the alarm about overuse of essential medicines like streptomycin, yet the EPA’s pesticide office is recklessly blessing its use as a pesticide.”
The WHO ranked antibiotic resistance among the top 10 health threats in 2019.
“The more you use antibiotics, the greater the risk that bacteria resistant to the drugs will flourish and spread. Experts estimate that drug-resistant infections could kill 10 million people globally per year by 2050 — nearly four times as many people who have died worldwide from COVID-19,” said Matt Wellington, Public Health Campaigns Director for U.S. PIRG. “Spraying medically important antibiotics on citrus crops is absurd under any circumstances, but it’s especially absurd when we know it’s not going to solve the citrus industry’s problems.”
The EPA’s own analysis indicates that the widespread use of streptomycin could also have harmful long-term effects on mammals that forage in treated fields. The agency has not analyzed how this change could affect specific endangered and threatened mammals that forage or nest in and around these citrus groves, or that rely on waterways contaminated by the antibiotic. Nor has EPA adequately assessed the risk that streptomycin poses to pollinators, whose health and survival are already compromised by a wide range of stressors, including other pesticides.
Today’s lawsuit was filed in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by Beyond Pesticides, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida (ECOSWF), Farmworker Association of Florida, Farmworker Justice, Migrant Clinicians Network, NRDC, and U.S. PIRG. Parties are represented by in-house counsel and Earthjustice.