Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Hunt for Kinder, Gentler Pesticides the EPA, the Chemical Industry, and Farmers Rethink Toxic Technologies, Opting Instead for `Softer' Chemicals

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Hunt for Kinder, Gentler Pesticides the EPA, the Chemical Industry, and Farmers Rethink Toxic Technologies, Opting Instead for `Softer' Chemicals

Article excerpt

`SOFTER chemicals" is the way Eric Wintemute describes the next generation of pesticides that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to encourage.

Mr. Wintemute, president and CEO of Amvac Chemical Corporation in San Francisco, recently saw one of his "hard" toxic pesticides, Phosdrin, wind up being banned by the EPA as too harmful to agricultural workers.

"EPA's agenda is to make an easier track for softer chemicals," he says, "to have chemicals that maybe aren't as efficacious, but safer from all aspects."

His conclusion is not to be construed that he agrees with the EPA. Amvac spent close to $8 million researching and promoting Phosdrin as a pesticide. The chemical industry can spend as much as $40 million testing new pesticides.

But nothing is black and white anymore when the environmental movement, the EPA, chemical manufacturers, politicians, and the farming industry decide whether or not to use pesticides, or how much, on the fruits and vegetables that are grown and eaten in the United States.

Over all the discussions hangs the Delaney clause of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. It provides that no chemical may be approved for use in processed food if it is found to induce cancer in man or animals.

For years, the EPA interpreted the clause as subject to an exception for carcinogenic pesticides that pose only "negligible risks" to humans. Environmental groups challenged this in court, asking for a "zero risk" interpretation. Environmentalists won in 1993. Congress is now faced with rewriting the law.

In April of this year the Clinton administration opted for the "negligible risk" standard. They also proposed that the economic benefits derived from using pesticides no longer be weighed above those of consumers when regulators set tolerances for acceptable levels of pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables.

More pesticides are increasingly available today, as are alternatives to pesticide use. Public pressure and concern over carcinogens have demanded changes for health reasons, and less lethal pesticides are being used.

At the same time many farmers and growers across the US are using fewer pesticides even though an estimated 850 million pounds of chemicals are sprayed or dusted on crops annually.

Integrated pest management methods, where farmers decide what kind or if any pesticides need to be used based on the weather, pest numbers, and soil conditions, are now widely practiced. But to many farmers, pesticides don't deserve blanket condemnation, and some pesticide use is appropriate.

"Pesticides ought to be fully tested before they are used," says Jay Feldman, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. "One of the indicators of acceptable use would be whether there exists an alternative pest-management strategy to achieve the same end goal with less toxic impact. …

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