Registering Skepticism: Does the EPA's Pesticide Review Protect Children?

By Lee Phillips, Melissa | Environmental Health Perspectives, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Registering Skepticism: Does the EPA's Pesticide Review Protect Children?


Lee Phillips, Melissa, Environmental Health Perspectives


When the EPA announced on 3 August 2006 that it had completed a 10-year review of U.S. pesticide safety, the agency issued a statement full of optimism from administrator Stephen L. Johnson: "By maintaining the highest ethical and scientific standards in its pesticide review, EPA and the Bush administration have planted the seeds to yield healthier lives for generations of American families."

But Johnson's words were met with skepticism, not only by environmental activists, but also by some of the EPA's own scientists. In May, as the agency's deadline for completing its review neared, nine presidents of unions representing EPA scientists and risk managers had written a letter to the administrator, expressing their concerns that the EPA was about to give approval for organophosphate (OP) and carbamate pesticides that may be neurotoxic, especially in developing fetuses, infants, and children.

"We think there's a lot of work that remains to be done in terms of getting [adequate] developmental neurotoxicity data," says William Hirzy, a senior scientist in the EPA's Office of Toxic Substances and vice president of the National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 280. The union leaders are concerned that the EPA administration is too focused on "avoiding lawsuits from the regulated community," Hirzy says. Further, in the absence of adequate data, the leaders fear the EPA is making decisions that err on the side of less restriction rather than more precaution.

EPA administrators, however, have responded that they are confident that their assessments are scientifically valid and that no health risks are posed by the pesticides that have been approved for continued use. "We think we have really set a very high bar for pesticide safety in this country," says Anne Lindsay, deputy director of the EPA Office of Pesticide Programs. "If you are eating food purchased in the U.S., it's really safe."

Two Cancellations

The EPA's pesticide review began in response to the passage of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA). This act required that the EPA reassess the safety of tolerance levels for food-use pesticide residues in or on raw and processed foods.

The EPA reviewed tens of thousands of new studies in order to decide which pesticides should be banned and which should have new tolerance assessments. These studies came from labs at the EPA, other governmental agencies, and pesticide companies. Over the past decade, the EPA has also developed new risk assessment tools and methods that they are using to better identify chemicals that may be hazardous to human health or the environment. Throughout the research and analysis phase of the review, the EPA also considered opinions from their own advisory committees, as well as from public health watchdog groups and from interested industries. Once all available research had been analyzed, the agency made decisions about each pesticide's allowed tolerance. After each decision was announced, a 60-day public comment period preceded finalization of the decision.

"The Food Quality Protection Act asked us to take a special look at infants, children, and other subpopulations that might have special sensitivities or susceptibilities," Lindsay says. The act also asked EPA scientists to examine both aggregate pesticide exposures from food, water, and household uses, as well as exposures to different food-use pesticides that might have cumulative effects in the body.

From 1996 on, all newly registered pesticides had to meet these safety standards, Lindsay says, but there was still the problem of pesticides that had been registered before the FQPA was enacted. So the EPA embarked on a 10-year mission to reassess all food-use pesticides that had not been proven to meet the new requirements. "The idea was to get all tolerances in the U.S. up to this new high safety standard," Lindsay says.

Congress mandated that the EPA complete all food-use pesticide tolerance reassessment decisions by 3 August 2006. …

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