Friday, July 27, 2007

The EPA's Pesticide-Protection Failure

by Linda Greer, Ph.D., director of NRDC's public health program

In 1996, Congress and President Clinton enacted the Food Quality Protection Act, a major rewrite of the nation's legal protections against the dangers of pesticides. Although not the first law to govern pesticides, FQPA broke new ground in several ways, most notably because it pegged maximum levels of pesticide residue on food to "tolerances" established to protect children rather than adults, in recognition that children are more vulnerable to pesticides than grown-ups. NRDC played a key role in crafting and winning passage of the bill, and we're proud of the accomplishment. Several years later, though, a harsh truth has emerged: the federal government has made a mess of implementing the law.
The Food Quality Protection Act has a few specific objectives. First, in passing this law, Congress recognized that children are most vulnerable to pesticides and that the food supply needs to be safe for them specifically. Second, the law accounts for the reality of how we are exposed to pesticides by requiring that when the EPA sets limits on pesticide levels, it must consider all sources of exposure, including what we spray in our homes and gardens and our cumulative exposures from food. (Before FQPA, assessments looked at the risks from one chemical and one food at a time.) Third, the law required the EPA to go back and re-examine pesticides then on the market to make sure they met these new safety standards.
But there's a wide gulf between the law and its implementation by the EPA. The reality is that the agency has failed to live up to the law's mandates.
Food now in grocery stores can carry pesticide residues that don't meet safety standards for children that are required under the law.
For example, FQPA required the EPA to reassess all existing pesticide tolerances -- the maximum residue levels permitted on foods -- over a 10-year period, with specific interim deadlines. The first third of those reassessments was to be finished by mid-1999, three years after FQPA became law; and the second third was to be completed by 2002. EPA missed the 1999 deadline, and has never caught up. Moreover, since the Bush administration took over, it has simply refused to apply the law's requirement that residue levels be safe for children and has instead used standards established with adults in mind. In fact, NRDC has had to bring suit not once but twice to force the EPA to comply with the law -- first over its failure to meet deadlines, and more recently over the administration's decision to ignore the child-safety standard.
The real-world impact of all this is that food now in grocery stores can carry pesticide residues that don't meet safety standards for children that are required under the law.
Perhaps the most striking example of the administration's refusal to apply the cumulative risk and child-safety standards is in the case of a pesticide called lindane. It's what's called an organochlorine -- an organic compound to which chlorine has been added. It's a chemical cousin to other infamous pesticides, including DDT. In addition to killing insects, it also bioaccumulates -- that is, it builds up in human fatty tissues, breaking down very, very slowly. So a little lindane this week, and a little more next month, and a little more a year after that adds up to a lot of lindane. For all those reasons, it's no longer legal to use lindane in agriculture (with some very small exceptions). It is, however, still used in prescription head lice shampoo, the kind so frequently prescribed by doctors when over-the-counter remedies fail. The reason? In 2002, the EPA concluded that it could entirely ignore lindane use on children for head lice, because the Food and Drug Administration is in charge of regulating shampoo, not the EPA. Of course, to reach that conclusion, the EPA had to disregard the very clear language of the FQPA, which requires an assessment of aggregate exposures and a significant margin for children's safety. The result of the EPA's abdication on the issue is that the government is ignoring the biggest single lindane exposure risk for children -- head lice shampoo.
All of that is not to say that FQPA will never achieve its objectives. In fact, one very significant thing the law has accomplished is to require that a great number of "grandfathered" pesticides be subject to newer, child-focused safety standards. Before FQPA, the chief pesticide protection law regulated new pesticides, but allowed pesticides already on the market to stay there without further testing. These grandfathered pesticides are now subject to FQPA. So far, that's been a largely hollow victory, because the EPA has yet to actually conduct many of the assessments, and because it's not applying the child-safety standard. Our best estimate is that as many as 90 percent of pesticides now on the market for use in American agriculture still have not been subjected to the safety analysis the law requires. If the EPA can be forced to follow the law, FQPA will eventually catch up with those grandfathered poisons, but we're nowhere close to that today.
Another significant failing in the agency's enforcement of FQPA was on display in the battle over atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides in U.S. agriculture. Farmers use it to kill off weeds, but it also gets washed into rivers and streams, where it can eventually harm wildlife and possibly humans. One set of studies shows it causes sexual abnormalities in frogs. A separate study done by atrazine's manufacturer showed increased levels of prostate cancer among workers at a manufacturing plant.
During the Bush administration's first term, the EPA considered whether to restrict or ban atrazine's use. The story of that process is a long and twisted tale. It involves what many believe was an effort by the manufacturer to delay or suppress alarming results from its own studies and the EPA ignoring the recommendations of its own scientific advisory panel to weigh the complete range of health effects from the chemical. NRDC was forced to file no fewer than four lawsuits to get the EPA to live up to its legal obligation to assess the pesticide's safety, and then to release documents about its deliberations. But when all was said and done, the EPA cut a sweetheart deal with the manufacturer that guarantees that atrazine will continue to be sold and used with no restrictions for the foreseeable future.
Atrazine remains in heavy use today as a result, even though it now has been banned in Europe. Indeed, it is widely overused here. Farmers often apply it routinely, whether there are weed seeds that indicate they will have a problem or not. And when they use it, they often over-apply. Some 60 to 70 million pounds of atrazine are applied annually in the United States to fields, golf courses and lawns, and the EPA has found widespread atrazine contamination in U.S. waterways. The most recent data indicate that more than 1 million Americans drink from water supplies contaminated with atrazine at potentially harmful levels. The bottom line is that a pesticide that ought to have been banned by the EPA is in wide overuse, with as much as three-fourths of the quantity applied unnecessary.
And make no mistake, the problem of pesticide overuse is about bottom lines. Very large corporations own most of American farming today, and they want to maximize profit, first and foremost. They do that with methods that are far more polluting than necessary. For their part, most consumers aren't particularly focused on the pesticide residue on their fruits and vegetables; they're buying food and assuming that the government is protecting them from unsafe substances. So, in the absence of meaningful oversight from the EPA, agribusiness is able to get away with rampant over-application of pesticides and fertilizers, at enormous environmental cost.
That's exactly why the EPA needs to get serious about living up to the requirements of the Food Quality Protection Act. Pesticides, when used, should be safe and safely applied. Right now, they're neither, for the most part, and the EPA is way behind on changing that.

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