Air Date: Week of July 16, 1999
The Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing the use of a pesticide called B. cepacia, that can be fatal to people with Cystic Fibrosis. Dr. John LiPuma, a professor of pediatrics at MCP/Hanneman University, joins host Steve Curwood to talk about the risks B. cepacia poses and the chemical’s use in the agriculture industry.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. On July 20th, a panel of scientists will meet in Arlington, Virginia, to assess the risk of a naturally-occurring bacteria that acts as a pesticide. It's called B. cepacia, and it can be fatal to any of the 30,000 people in the US with cystic fibrosis. B. cepacia is found in several agricultural products. Last year, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation called for a ban on its commercial use. So, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency blocked all new applications to use B. cepacia, but left intact existing permits. Now, even those old permits are up for review. I asked Dr. John LiPuma, a professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and one of the scientists on the upcoming panel, why B. cepacia is so important to industry.
LiPUMA: Interestingly, it produces a number of substances that are quite useful commercially. It produces certain things such as compounds that inhibit certain fungal organisms that can damage crops, and other companies are interested in it because it also produces compounds that can degrade certain toxic substances.
CURWOOD: Mm hm. Now, what's the special risk that it poses to people with cystic fibrosis?
LiPUMA: Well, for reasons that are not at all clear, people with cystic fibrosis can acquire this bacteria in their lungs. And when that happens, they can develop a very severe pneumonia, and some of them will go on to die.
CURWOOD: So, if B. cepacia is sometimes lethal to people with cystic fibrosis, then why should this stuff be let loose in the environment at all? I mean, aren't there alternatives?
LiPUMA: Well, that's the crux of the debate right now. The alternatives that are currently used are toxic substances that are carcinogenic and are difficult to degrade. And so, it would certainly be nice to find safer alternatives, and B. cepacia, producing some of these compounds that can naturally inhibit these fungus, are attractive from that point of view. The downside, of course, is that this bacterium causes real problems in this particular patient population.
CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, then, there are a number of plants that get bugs -- pests, really. We're talking about soybeans, ginseng, other commercial crops that B. cepacia is pretty effective against. And today, if I were growing these crops, I could buy B. cepacia or I couldn't?
LiPUMA: There is a licensed product that contains B. cepacia. So, to answer the question, yes. If you looked for this product, you could buy a product that contains viable B. cepacia.
CURWOOD: And yet, we have heard that a company called Good Bugs isn't being allowed to use B. cepacia.
LiPUMA: That's correct.
CURWOOD: I still don't get it. Why not take away the license from the other company?
LiPUMA: My understanding of the way EPA works is that essentially, once a license is granted, then the onus is on the consumer to prove harm due to the use of that product.
CURWOOD: One has to wonder if they're willing to address this essential truth that they're denying this license on the basis of danger to one company, yet letting another company proceed with selling the substance.
LiPUMA: I agree. And I think this is something that EPA is also struggling with and considering, and I think it is a topic that we hope to address next week when we meet in Washington.
CURWOOD: John LiPuma is a pediatrician at the Medical College of Pennsylvania at Hahneman University. Thanks so much for joining us.
LiPUMA: You're quite welcome.
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