World wide web of pesticides can endanger consumers

The Internet presents a unique challenge for pesticide regulators

By

 Updated:

Termites? No problem. On DoMyOwnPestControl.com, $64.99 buys a 20-ounce bottle of Termidor SC. That’s enough for anyone with a credit card and a shipping address to make 24 gallons of anti-termite spray. Never mind that the manufacturer, BASF Corporation, authorizes only licensed exterminators who have undergone a special training program to handle the pesticide, according to the product’s website.

Like books, cars, and music, pesticides are available online more than ever, for purchase by both professional exterminators and unsuspecting consumers, said Brian Rowe, pesticide section manager at Michigan’s Pesticide and Plant Pest Management Division. Vendors and customers are now linked by a few clicks of the mouse, letting them circumvent regulations meant to protect people from harmful chemicals.

“It’s problematic, obviously,” said Jim Wright, regulatory supervisor at the Clemson University Department of Pesticide Regulation, which enforces South Carolina’s pesticide regulations. “We all agree that [many pesticides] are not intended to be in the hands of someone who does not have the wherewithal or training to use them. You can pull up any number of virtual storefronts that will allow you access to those products.”

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state pesticide departments, charged with managing pesticide sales through all venues, are concerned that some chemicals sold online are not what the vendor claims and could pose a threat to humans or the environment.

“When you go to a store and pick up a can of Raid, you can hold it in your hand, say, ‘here’s my product,’ see who manufactures it, see the label,” Rowe said. “Now you go to ‘Somewhere.com,’ bring up a little tiny picture, read the text about it. It might say ‘homemade insect repellant, greatest insect repellant there is.’ But you can’t pick it up. You can’t hold it.”

While officials have no reliable records to demonstrate the extent of the problem, the pesticides available over the Internet raise serious concerns because of their potency. Numbness, seizures, or even death could result from overexposure to the chemical permethrin, found in the termite and ant killer Tengard SFR, said Susan Kegley, a senior scientist for the Pesticide Action Network of North America and CEO of the Pesticide Research Institute. Because some products sold online like Tengard SFR are highly concentrated, they are especially dangerous to untrained users who don’t know how to properly ventilate an area or dress appropriately, she said.

Walt Cline, owner of Pro Pest Products, was fined several times for illegal Internet sales before he began to take note of the laws governing his business. “When we first got into this years ago, we didn’t know about all the regulations,” he said. Now he responds quickly to complaints from state agencies, though his company still sells Termidor SC and other professional-use products to anyone, licensed or not, in states where these pesticides are not explicitly illegal.

Vendors are often ignorant of the varied regulations governing the use of pesticides, several state regulators said. Particularly with auction sites like eBay.com, where there are millions of individual sellers, education is the challenge.

Jack Christin Jr., senior regulatory counsel for eBay, said he corresponds regularly with the EPA in order to keep vendors informed of the relevant laws and to remove problematic listings. But the company receives nearly 7 million new posts a day and has its hands full stopping the sale of guns and drugs, leaving pesticides low on the priority list, acknowledged eBay spokeswoman Catherine England.

A nationwide effort to regulate online sales of pesticides began in June 2001 with “Surf Day,” an investigation coordinated by the EPA and the Association of American Pesticide Control Officials. About 30 federal and 30 state employees spent a day searching 600 websites for unregistered, cancelled, misbranded, or restricted pesticide products, according to the EPA Office of Compliance.

Surf Day participants discovered hundreds of “e-vendors” selling restricted chemicals without requiring proof that the customers were licensed to handle the product. “We found that most sites make no mention of the state laws and regulations that might limit the sale or distribution of EPA-registered products,” a representative of the Office of Compliance told the Center via e-mail.

Since that early initiative, however, the EPA has played a largely advisory role, delegating the difficult job of monitoring online sales to state agencies, according to the Office of Compliance.

State pesticide laws are often more rigorous than EPA restrictions. Some states, for instance, consider it illegal to use the residential roach and beetle insecticide Demand CS without an applicator’s license; the EPA does not. Despite stricter rules, few states operate regular Internet inspection programs, allowing companies like ePestSupply.com and some eBay.com vendors to ship the product, which is extremely toxic to fish and bees, almost anywhere in the United States. Representatives from ePestSupply.com declined to comment.

Michigan is one of the few states that does conduct Internet investigations, and last year, Rowe’s office investigated 160 pesticide products on 21 websites. Fourteen companies were issued stop-sale notices for violation of state policies. The department found four products that were not even registered with the EPA.

New York has also been aggressive in its pursuit of illegal sales, occasionally conducting undercover purchases in order to prove violations, said New York Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Yancey Roy. A 1999 partnership with the state Attorney General’s Office resulted in fines of more than $200,000 against five companies for selling unregistered and license-only products online and by mail order.

In August, a California man pleaded guilty to five felonies and five misdemeanors for illegal Internet sales after a yearlong investigation by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, according to a department press release. Diazinon, one of the chemicals he sold through his online store, was phased out of residential use in 2004 because of the risks it posed to children’s health.

For most states though, a lack of resources prevents effective monitoring of the web, said Dave Fredrickson, chief of compliance and investigation at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Officials in Arizona respond to complaints, but there is not room in the budget for a more proactive approach, agreed Jack Peterson, associate director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Services Division.

Tim Creger, pesticide program manager for the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, began coordinating efforts with other states in 2001 through the Pesticide Regulators Forum, a website that allows states to communicate about enforcement activity. Administrators can use the site to send a uniform notice urging companies to comply with EPA and state guidelines, and to see which companies have already received the notice.

For the past three years, however, no state agency has used the forum for e-commerce, Creger said. “Even though it’s a work plan objective for EPA that states [monitor websites], the fact of the matter is we don’t get a lot of money to do that, and a lot of states just ignore it. A lot of states just assume that EPA is taking care of it.”

Creger identified Colorado, New York, Michigan, Minnesota, and his own state of Nebraska as those he knows to be working consistently to stem illegal Internet sales.

It is difficult to determine what regulatory action is taking place because some states investigate online pesticide sales independently or refer e-commerce violations to regional EPA offices, bypassing the website that would record their actions, Creger said. “I think a lot of the states are kicking it over to the EPA because they may be like us [in that] we don’t have a lot of support to deal with someone out of state.”

Many argue that the EPA should be doing more, emphasizing the challenge of controlling a global marketplace with such a narrow jurisdiction. “The state of South Carolina can only do so much,” Wright said. “At the very best we’re only going to solve one-fiftieth of the problem. Until you have that decision from the federal government that says in the U.S. you can’t do this, it’s not going to stop.”

Creger does see the number of websites selling pesticides decreasing, due to, he believes, the work of both state and federal regulators. But, as Wright points out, the Internet is expanding daily, and according to a spokesman for the EPA Office of Compliance, “The fluidity of the Internet makes it hard to determine how effective our efforts have been.”

For some, that fluidity makes policing the World Wide Web seem futile. David Munn, supervising environmental specialist at the New Jersey Bureau of Pesticide Compliance, stressed the near impossibility of controlling what is sold on the Internet. “If you can’t get it in the U.S.,” he speculated, “can you get it from China? Sure. Can you get it on eBay? Yes.”

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now