New findings show that widely used organic phosphorus is even more dangerous than originally thought.
By Dan Even | Mar.12, 2013

The Health Ministry is calling for further restrictions on farmers’ use of pesticides containing organic phosphorus, following new studies that revealed Israelis have significantly higher levels of exposure to the harmful substance than those elsewhere in the West.

Health Ministry director general Roni Gamzu warned the inter-ministerial committee in charge of authorizing the use of pesticides that if major restrictions on organic phosphorus are not put in place, the ministry would pull out of the committee.

“As an official responsible for the health of the public, I cannot stand behind any other decision,” Gamzu wrote.

The ministry has issued a statement saying that the committee agreed in principle to the recommended restrictions, but that Gamzu is demanding their implementation be expedited.

The Health Ministry initially raised concerns last year about the use of the chemical, which has been banned for direct use by consumers since 2008 but whose use in agriculture is still widespread. Now new evidence suggests the substance is even more harmful than originally thought, posing a substantial risk to public health by tainting fruits and vegetables.

Pregnant women are particularly at risk, studies show. Long-term, daily exposure to organic phosphorus can adversely affect the development of the fetus, as well as the child’s memory, behavior and cognitive development.

Following a September report that found traces of the substance in all 249 of the Israeli adults tested, new findings released in recent weeks revealed that Israelis tested positive for higher concentrations of the chemical than did residents of other Western countries.

Israeli researchers also found a clear link between the presence of the substance in urine samples and the extent to which those tested consumed fruits and vegetables. A separate study that tested food sold in Israel found higher-than-permissible levels of organic phosphorus in some samples.

“This data is worrying,” the ministry said in a position paper, “and justifies action to manage the risk, including stepped-up oversight of farmers, controls to verify that the substances are being used according to label instructions, and the reduction of the number of crops on which the pesticide can be applied.”

In particular, the Health Ministry is seeking to ban the pesticide fenamiphos, which contains organic phosphorus. Fenamiphos is currently approved for the cultivation of large crops, including tomatoes, cucumbers, peanuts, bananas, onions, carrots, grapes, potatoes, sweet corn and wheat. While the chemical has been banned in the United States, its limited use is permitted in Europe. The Health Ministry states said because it cannot rule out the potential for harmful side effects, it is seeking to ban the pesticide’s use altogether.

Other organic phosphorus pesticides the ministry is seeking to ban include methamidophos, which has been outlawed in Europe since 2008 and in the United States since 2009; and dimethoate, which is legal in the United States but only allowed on a limited basis in Europe. In Israel dimethoate is used to grow pears, persimmons, peaches, olives, apples, citrus fruit and numerous other fruits and vegetables.

The use of chlopyrifos, which is used in Israel to treat a wide variety of crops, and which has been found to harm children and pregnant women, would also be limited under the Health Ministry recommendations. It is seeking to impose the same limitations as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which does not permit the chemical’s use for growing tomatoes or near hospitals, schools or public parks.