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03.23 Why Not Utopia?
Groups Challenge EPA’s ‘Industry friendly’ Pesticide Rules
EPA scientists and employees have sent a letter to the EPA administrator, protesting rushed studies and demanding that no chemical be approved unless the "EPA can state with scientific confidence that these pesticides will not harm the neurological development of our nation's born and unborn children."June 1--Two recent actions by environmental health watchdogs foreshadow a showdown between corporations and public-interest advocates over the safety of toxins marketed as pesticides.
On May 24, a coalition of Environmental Protection Agency employees and scientists issued a public letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson accusing the Agency of coddling pesticide companies. The writers urged greater scrutiny of the potential health impact of two classes of toxic pesticides currently in use.
On Tuesday, the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) raised further suspicions about collusion between the agency and corporate interests by publicizing notes from an August 2005 meeting between EPA officials and pesticide-industry representatives. The meeting records suggest that industry leaders want to use human research subjects to prove the safety of toxic pesticides.
The tension between EPA's internal dissenters and the industry is mounting under a looming deadline for the scientific assessment of two similar classes of pesticides: organophosphates and carbamates. The assessments, mandated by the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA), are intended to establish safe levels of human exposures. The EPA has been evaluating pesticides in the two groups for several years, and about 20 chemicals are still awaiting final decisions by an August 3 deadline.
In their letter, the EPA scientists and employees argued that many of the risk assessments of previous years had cut corners.
"In the rush to meet the August 2006 FQPA statutory deadline," the co-signers wrote, "many steps in the risk-assessment and risk-management process are being abbreviated or eliminated in violation of the principles of scientific integrity and objectivity by which we as public servants are bound."
In the 1990s, the authors argued, although some risk assessments had led to limited restrictions on certain uses of organophosphates, the EPA had failed to fully assess residential and occupational exposure hazards. It ignored, for example, the impact on children of farm workers who accompany their parents in the fields.
Citing the need for further research, the authors called on the agency to stop approving the use of the remaining organophosphate and carbamates in the reassessment process "until EPA can state with scientific confidence that these pesticides will not harm the neurological development of our nation's born and unborn children."
Exposing the other side of the pesticide controversy, PEER publicized notes from a closed-door meeting on August 9, 2005, attended by EPA and White House Office of Management and Budget officials as well as pesticide-industry interests, including Bayer CropScience and the trade association CropLife America. The hastily scrawled notes, which were pulled from a public EPA administrative docket, articulate the pesticide industry's demands for certain regulatory policies that would help them obtain data to keep controversial plant and animal poisons on the market.
"Pesticides have benefits. Rule should say so. Testing, too, has benefits," reads one statement.
One type of testing that the industry finds beneficial--despite an outcry from public-interest groups--involves the use of humans.
The notes circulated by PEER tie the prospect of human testing to the FQPA evaluations. A statement attributed to industry lobbyist Jim Aidala urges the EPA to devise a favorable testing protocol so the industry can "proceed ASAP" and cites concerns that the process "won't be able to meet the FQPA deadline."
Several months after that meeting, the EPA exceeded the industry's expectations by finalizing official procedures for human testing of pesticides. Effective as of April 7, 2006, the EPA's testing protocol allows some human testing with oversight from a designated "Human Studies Review Board" and places restrictions on research using pregnant women and children.
But environmental groups have denounced the EPA's protocol as rife with ethical loopholes, suggesting it prioritizes the industry's interests over science in the public interest.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said the industry saw human testing as "central to their regulatory strategy" because it might yield data that counters the intense adverse effects observed in animal studies.
"The most valuable subjects, from the industry's point of view, are going to be children," Ruch told The NewStandard, because regulatory oversight is heavily focused on how pesticides influence early development.
The FQPA requires a much higher health standard for pesticides that could affect the health of children and fetuses.
PEER pointed out that in describing possible uses of children as research subjects, the notes display the phrase, "Kids—never say never.... Can't know without testing."
"Closed-door discussions about using children as chemical guinea pigs," commented Ruch. "I'm not sure if it gets too much worse than that."
A backgrounder on the EPA website concedes that organophosphates, about 77 million pounds of which are doused on the country's crops, lawns and other areas each year, are associated with chronic and acute health problems including nerve damage and paralysis.
Groups objecting to human testing say history raises concerns that it could facilitate unethical testing practices, such as the outsourcing of human trials to other countries, or research on prison inmates and neglected children.Pesticide Action Network of North America, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other advocacy groups have sued the EPA to block the human-subjects rule. The groups say history raises concerns that the EPA's plan could facilitate unethical testing practices, such as the outsourcing of human trials to other countries, or research on prison inmates and neglected children without sufficient informed-consent rules.
In a joint response to PEER, leaders of CropLife America and another trade association, Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, alleged that PEER's criticisms revealed fears that human studies could invalidate arguments against pesticide use. "PEER may be anticipating EPA scientific findings not to their liking and are setting the stage for future disagreement and potential litigation," they said.
In an interview with TNS, Allan Noe, a spokesperson for CropLife America, dismissed the ethical and public-health concerns of PEER and other groups, stating that the company supported testing only on "healthy, non-pregnant adults." CropLife endorses human-based research "under carefully controlled conditions and only when absolutely called for," he said.
But Susan Kegley, a senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network, suspects that the push for human testing reflects not a genuine interest in protecting health but rather, the industry's eagerness to manipulate science.
"The only reason human testing is quote 'necessary' is to increase industry profits," she said. "You will only find them using human tests that raise the acceptable amount you can be exposed to, and decrease protections for people."
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This story was published on June 2, 2006.