Law of the land

June 9, 2016 -  By

Battleship III is one example of a product that has undergone changes to label items such as minimum retreatment intervals.

Pesticide labels are ever-changing, legally-binding documents. If you don’t check them frequently, you could be in hot water.

Last year, Addison Rogers noticed a change on the label of Battleship III, a three-way liquid formulation of triclopyr, fluroxypyr and MCPA designed to control broadleaf weeds. The new line read: “Do not apply more than 2 applications per year with a minimum retreatment interval of 21 days.”

Rogers, operations and safety manager for ProLawn Service Corp. & Magic DeIcing in Winchester, Va., was startled by the realization. The minimum retreatment period, or the amount of time that must pass between applications, increased from 14 days to 21 days, and the number of applications went down. ProLawn’s base lawn care program, which most of its clients choose, included three applications of a three-way, such as Battleship III, per year. The new label language, different by just one line of text, meant ProLawn’s program was out of compliance with the new label.

It’s scary how a change can sneak up on you, Rogers says. And he considers his company diligent in checking and double-checking pesticide labels.

The Battleship III label change was made during its reregistration review in 2008, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Rogers’ program may have been outdated for a few years, or he could have been purchasing stock from his supplier containing the earlier label language.

“People have used certain products for years, and sometimes they don’t think about it,” says Gary Custis, whose work includes writing and preparing labels for Quali-Pro, a division of Control Solutions. “You need to go back to the labels every year and make sure the language still fits your use. Maybe uses have been removed or there are new restrictions. So, it may or may not be the product you want to use, even if you have used it for a long time.”

Label changes are occurring frequently and often unexpectedly, experts say. If you’re haphazard about checking your labels, it’s time to review them before every application, as the EPA recommends.

On a micro level, in extreme cases, noncompliant lawn care company owners can be faced with unwanted fines and investigations—even if a misapplication was accidental. On a macro level, one company missing one line of label instruction can spur industry-wide changes to the way pesticides are regulated.

Changes abound

Pesticide labels can be changed at any time, but changes are typically mandated during the reregistration stage. An EPA spokesperson says the agency is mindful of seasonal work, but midseason changes are sometimes unavoidable. A midseason change would come if the agency finds new, urgent information that it decides needs immediate action.

Barring extreme and urgent circumstances of human or environmental health risks, however, the manufacturer has a designated time period, often a year, to make any required label changes. The label on an LCO’s existing stock is valid until the product is gone. Each new stock the manufacturer distributes will include any label updates, to which the end-user must adhere. In extreme cases, the EPA will issue a stop sale, stop use or removal order.

The EPA does not have a great system of disseminating label change information. It can be found in the Federal Register, in press releases disseminated by the agency or in its electronic Office of Pesticide Program Updates, but these outlets often don’t reach many LCOs. One of the most reliable sources of pertinent information is through state- or industry association-run educational programs, where major changes are often the topic of discussion. States that require a yearly renewal of pesticide applicator licenses may relay this information to applicators during the renewal sessions. Still, both Rogers and the EPA say the only way to be sure you’re aware of changes is by religiously checking labels before application.

It’s so important because, unlike suggested uses or instructions on many product labels, the use requirements on pesticide labels are legally enforceable. Each one carries the statement: “It is a violation of federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.” Pesticides are regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, a version of which was first enacted in 1910. It received major revisions in 1972 and was most recently amended in 2012.

Enforcement of this law falls on state agencies. Many states require lawn care companies to document each application, and some states, such as New York, even require applicators to submit this data each year. However, the purpose of this record keeping is not to seek information about misapplication, and companies typically don’t receive penalties from its findings.

“(States that require companies to submit records) simply want to know what is the quantity of pesticides that is being put down in their state,” says Karen Reardon, vice president of public affairs for Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE). “There isn’t a (process of) seeking information about misapplication.”

Often, misapplication is reported by a company itself, in cases of accidents, or by another citizen, Reardon says. Many states, such as Virginia, where Rogers is located, do conduct inspections to ensure applicators apply chemicals properly, applicators wear proper personal protective equipment and management collects the proper data. Errors typically result in warnings, but repeated mistakes or negligence can result in fines or even stripping applicators of their pesticide licenses.

Snowball effect

The Oregon Department of Agriculture dealt with two extreme situations in the summer of 2013 in Wilsonville, Oregon Live reports. First, roughly 50,000 bumblebees were found dead in a Target parking lot that June. Collier Arbor Care of Clackamas, Ore., had applied Safari, a dinotefuran pesticide, to a tree in the lot that was in bloom at the time. The product label warned that the pesticide is hazardous to bees when applied to flowering trees in bloom. The company and two of its applicators were each fined $555 for the mishap, which occurred during National Pollinator Awareness week.

Those fines might seem small to some lawn care professionals, given the extremity and rarity of the event. In fact, a few weeks later another bee die-off at a golf course only resulted in a warning that carried no fine. Still, high-profile misapplication can have a snowball effect. For Collier Arbor Care, the event prompted an investigation, and the company was again fined after it was found to have misapplied chemicals in downtown Portland. The agency fined the company and two more applicators an additional $407.

Later that summer, the state’s agriculture officials placed restrictions on pesticides linked to the bee deaths, stating: “Pesticides containing dinotefuran and imidacloprid can no longer be applied to linden trees, basswood and other trees of the Tilia genus.”

Furthermore, though not in a direct response to these instances, the EPA says it has taken a number of actions to protect pollinators, including “new labeling requirements for neonicotinoid pesticides to be clearer and better protect bees.” Dinotefuran and imidacloprid are neonicotinoids. It also urges those in the landscaping industry to consider pollinator protection in their work.

“Some people get upset over (new regulations), but it’s one of those things you’re going to have to live with,” Custis says. “By no means do I feel it’s causing anybody to not be able to do their business. Our goal is to figure out how to help people use (a product) the right way so that we don’t lose it. We don’t want to go the way of Canada, where they put a ban on all cosmetic pesticides.”

After Rogers’ realization, ensuring compliance on future applications wasn’t difficult. The company changed its base program to two applications of Battleship III and one application of a three-way called Cool Power. This new choice of herbicide targets cool-season weeds, which emerge first in Northern Virginia, where ProLawn is located, so the company applies it at the beginning of the year.

There wasn’t a huge financial impact from the change, Rogers says. In fact, his company saved only about $100 per 700 acres of applications. However, with a high minimum retreatment interval, some companies that use cheaper ingredients may need to move to a more expensive product to get the same amount of efficacy, Rogers speculates.

For many experienced lawn care professionals, a reminder to “check your label” is a tired phrase like “wear a seat belt” or “don’t text and drive.” But just like those safety warnings, there are real consequences to forgetting this essential message. That’s why ProLawn has renewed its commitment to studying labels.

“The label is the law,” Rogers says. “As a company, we’re big on doing things the right way. Any time we’re going to go out with a product for a round of application, we’re checking our labels and making sure we’re following the law.”

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About the Author:

Dillon Stewart graduated from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, earning a Bachelor of Science in Online Journalism with specializations in business and political science. Stewart is a former associate editor of LM.

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