August 28, 2019

Senator Warren and Colleagues Urge EPA to Reconsider Allowing Expanded Use of Antibiotics as Pesticides and Ignoring Threats to Public Health

EPA plan could escalate antibiotic resistance crisis by allowing agribusinesses to spray more than 650,000 pounds of certain antibiotics, over forty times as much as is currently used to treat disease in the U.S.

Text of the Letter (PDF)

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and U.S. Representatives Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), Chairman of the House Oversight Committee's Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), today sounded alarm bells over the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) decisions to allow an unprecedented expansion of the use of the antibiotics streptomycin and oxytetracycline as pesticides in citrus production.

The overuse and misuse of antibiotics has created "superbugs," strains of bacteria that are resistant to critically important medications and treatments. Antibiotic resistance is a looming public health crisis that could kill an estimated ten million people worldwide annually by 2050, more people than currently die from cancer each year.

EPA's proposed decision would allow agribusiness to spray more than 650,000 pounds of streptomycin on citrus trees every year, over 40 times as much as is used each year to treat human disease in the United States. EPA's final approval for oxytetracycline will allow agribusiness to spray up to 388,000 pounds per year, 130,000 pounds more than all tetracyclines used for human medicine in the United States annually. The unprecedented expansion of the use of these two antibiotics could make them ineffective in treating diseases for which they are currently needed, including syphilis, urinary tract infections, tuberculosis, and chlamydia.

"EPA appears to have pursued these proposals despite warnings by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that massive agricultural use of these crucial, life-saving antibiotics could spur antimicrobial resistance and create unreasonably high risks to human health," wrote the lawmakers in a joint letter to the EPA. "Given these serious public health risks and the scientific evidence indicating that additional agricultural use of these pesticides will increase those risks, we urge you to reconsider these decisions."

Environmentalists and public health advocates believe EPA's decisions regarding the uses of streptomycin and oxytetracycline were flawed, based on bad data provided by big agribusiness and ignoring critical risks to human health. A new study by citrus researchers at the University of Florida found that spraying massive quantities of oxytetracycline was not even effective at treating the bacterial infection it has been intended to fight. 

Senator Warren has advocated against the risky use of antibiotics in our food system. She is one of the lead authors of the Strengthening Antibiotic Oversight Act, legislation to help prevent antibiotic resistance by strengthening the oversight of medically-important antibiotics administered to food animals. Senator Warren's advocacy in this area has delivered results: after she sent a letter to the FDA calling on the agency to improve oversight of medically-important antibiotics in food animals and highlighting gaps in FDA animal drug policy that contribute to human disease, the FDA announced it would fund additional research on the use of medically-important antimicrobial drugs in food animals.