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EPA proposal to allow streptomycin to treat citrus disease poses unacceptable risk to health and the environment

Proposal allows widespread use of medically important drug that could lead to increased antibiotic resistance 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Consumer Reports urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reverse its proposed decision to allow the use of streptomycin to treat citrus disease because of the unacceptable risk it could pose to human health and the environment.  In comments submitted  to the EPA, the consumer group noted that the proposal would result in a 26-fold increase in the use of streptomycin in plant agriculture and could trigger antibiotic resistance that would reduce the drug’s effectiveness in treating diseases in people.

The EPA’s proposal comes at a time when medical experts have warned that growing antibiotic resistance poses one of the most serious threats to public health and as other federal agencies have worked to reduce the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture and human medicine.

“This misguided proposal would allow a massive increase in the use of streptomycin — far greater than its use in human medicine,” said Michael Hansen, PhD, senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports.  “The EPA has failed to adequately investigate the risks associated with this proposal, which would undermine current government efforts to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics.  We urge the EPA to withdraw this proposal.”

Streptomycin is classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as highly important in human medicine and is used to address hard-to-treat tuberculosis infections, and bubonic plague, among other diseases.  The EPA has proposed to allow streptomycin to be sprayed on all citrus trees in the U.S. up to three times a year.  Based on current commercial citrus acreage, the amount allowed to be sprayed would total more than 942,000 lbs, a 26-fold increase in streptomycin use in plant agriculture.

In comments to the EPA, Consumer Reports urged the agency to more carefully assess the risk of antibiotic resistance from being exposed to low levels of streptomycin for people who drink citrus juices or water in citrus-producing areas.  If the EPA moves forward with allowing streptomycin to treat citrus diseases, it should set a tolerance level well below the amount that can trigger antibiotic resistance and take a number of other steps to better manage the risk it poses.

Consumer Reports called on the EPA to restrict application of the antibiotic to injection of infected trees rather than allowing spraying of all citrus.  The consumer group also urged the EPA to classify streptomycin as a Restricted Use Pesticide so it can only be applied by a licensed trained applicator.

The FDA, in an effort to reduce antibiotic use in animal agriculture, issued regulations and guidance that ended all use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion and required a veterinarian’s supervision for use in disease prevention and treatment, in 2017.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 2 million people in the U.S. acquire serious infections with bacteria that are resistant to one or more antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die as a result.