WASHINGTON, May 15, 2019— A federal study has found that medically important antibiotics the EPA has proposed to re-approve for expanded pesticide use on crops can facilitate antibiotic resistance in bacteria that pose “urgent” and “serious” threats to human health.

The findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study were revealed this week in documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity under the Freedom of Information Act.

The harmful antibiotic-resistant bacteria include MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), nightmare bacteria (Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE)) and VRE (Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus), which together account for more than 100,000 infections and 13,000 deaths per year in the United States.

“It’s alarming that the Trump administration is willing to put us all at greater risk from dangerous bacteria by letting these human medicines be sprayed on crops,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This kind of recklessness is what happens when the industry has a stranglehold on the EPA’s pesticide-approval process.”

The EPA recently proposed to re-approve the medically important antibiotics oxytetracyline and streptomycin for use on apples, pears and nectarines and to expand their use to hundreds of thousands of acres of citrus trees. But the EPA proposals make little mention of the report, instead relying heavily on information provided by the companies selling the antibiotics. The two public comment periods on the most recent proposed re-approvals close on Friday.

The CDC study tested the susceptibility of 40 samples from dangerous bacterial strains to oxytetracycline and streptomycin and concluded that:

  • Resistance to the antibiotics is found in bacteria causing human disease,
  • Resistance to the antibiotics is known to be transferable from one type of bacteria to another,
  • Use of these antibiotics can select for resistance to other antibiotics used to treat infections, and
  • Use of these antibiotics can select for bacteria that are resistant to unrelated antibiotics used to treat infections. This includes selection for CRE bacteria that have been identified as an urgent antibiotic resistance threat, as well as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus which have been identified as serious antibiotic resistance threats.

Despite the concerns raised in the report, the EPA has recently approved the use on citrus crops of an estimated 388,000 pounds of oxytetracycline. The agency has also proposed to allow an estimated 650,000 pounds of streptomycin to be used on the same crops. These antibiotics are used as a chronic treatment to combat citrus canker and citrus greening disease.

The EPA’s current proposed re-approval is part of a registration review process that happens every 15 years. Pesticides are reevaluated to make sure they can still safely be used. Oxytetracycline and streptomycin can currently be used to treat bacterial diseases on crops like apples, peaches, pears and nectarines.

“Trump’s EPA is bowing to the pesticide industry’s wishes, with no regard for the consequences to human health, wildlife or the environment,” said Donley. “Spraying antibiotics on fruit is a short-term fix with dangerous, long-term consequences.”