Chemical Roulette: EPA Investigates Pesticides . . . Slowly

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The EPA seems to be dragging their feet when it comes to banning dangerous chemicals on food.
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Under the law, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
was to have finished a third of the job by August 1999,
giving priority to the riskiest pesticides, including 45
organophosphates (OPs), highly effective poisons that kill
by inhibiting an enzyme necessary for proper nervous system
function. (Some of the more potent organophosphates were
used as nerve gases in World War II.) But so far reviews
have been finalized for only eight of the OPs; of these,
seven have had their registrations canceled and their
tolerances, or legal residue limits, revoked.

Reviews for the remaining 37 OPs are now stalled while the
EPA figures out how to measure these pesticides’ combined
risk to human health (as required under the FQPA).
Historically, the EPA has assessed each OP as a discrete
poison; yet, as nerve agents, all OPs act similarly on the
body and their effects are cumulative. Acute exposures can
cause symptoms ranging from dizziness, vomiting and
headaches to respiratory arrest, convulsions and death.
Chronic low-dose exposures have been linked to
nervous-system damage, learning disabilities, cancer,
fertility problems and birth defects.

Despite the missed ’99 deadline, Jack Housenger, associate
director of the EPA’s special review and reregistration
division, insists the OP reassessments are on track. True,
most have gone as far as they can go pending a means for
calculating the dangers of combined exposures (the EPA has
pledged to have a formula in place before this summer).
Meanwhile, the discrete, or individual, risk assessments
have been updated for nearly all of the organophosphates,
and interim decisions reauthorizing, amending or canceling
existing uses have been issued for more than a dozen. But
even as the agency trumpets its midstream reductions of
these controversial pesticides, critics contend the
restrictions don’t go nearly far enough.

Cozy with Industry

Last summer, when the EPA announced a ban on the pesticide
chlorpyrifos (trade name Dursban) for most home and garden
uses it seemed a triumph for public health advocates, who
had long questioned the safety of this most widely used
organophos phate. Upon closer inspection, however, the
decision turns out to be a qualified win at best.
Chlorpyrifos — a poison that in animal studies has proven
hazardous to developing brains and nervous systems — will
still be used agriculturally, though not on the too
permeable tomato. Some 13 million pounds will continue to
be applied annually to corn, grain, fruits, nuts and
vegetables. The decision also tem porarily retains Dursban
as a termite con trol, allowing spot and local treatments
of postconstruction lumber through 2002 and of
preconstruction materials through 2005. Use on golf courses
and for mosquito sprayings will continue indefinitely.
Indeed, Housenger admits an all-out ban is unlikely.

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond
Pesticides/National Coalition Against the Misuse of
Pesticides, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental
consortium, counters that anything short of a cancellation
is unacceptable. “Our position is that the public should
not be exposed to neurotoxic pesticides,” says Feldman, who
faults the EPA for “regulating by negotiation” with the
chemical industry — striking deals that put company profit
above public safety. He points specifically to
chlorpyrifos, and charges that the EPA worked with Dow
Agrosciences, the makers of Dursban, to determine which
uses would stay and which would go.

Housenger confirms that the chlorpyrifos restrictions were
hammered out in meetings with Dow, but maintains such
negotiations serve the public good by preventing lengthy
litigation and by speeding removal of dangerous products
from the market.

But while the agreement may mean less work for EPA lawyers,
it hardly signals a quick exit for chlorpyrifos. Dow was
allowed to keep making Dursban through last December, and
retailers may continue selling products containing the
pesticide through 2001 — with no obligation to warn
consumers that its home-use days are numbered. Moreover,
chlorpyrifos products purchased on or before December 31
can legally be used until supplies are exhausted.

Housenger defends the long phase-out period, noting that
federal law bars the EPA from issuing a pesticide recall
except in cases of an emergency suspension. “In order to
suspend, we have to deem that there is an imminent hazard,”
says Housenger, “which is a whole different standard than
showing that cancellation is warranted.” Besides, he adds,
a recall has its own worries: “There’s risk in getting the
product back up-line — and then there is the issue of
disposing of a lot of this product when it is all
accumulated in one place.” Given the choices, says
Housenger, the EPA “thought it best” to allow chlorpyrifos
to dissipate in the marketplace.

Vested Interest

Dow Agrosciences’ involvement in the reassessment of
chlorpyrifos is hardly an anomaly. Indeed, the chemical
industry is involved in every step of the pesticide
registration and tolerance-setting process. Here’s how it
works: The manufacturer, or “registrant” (i.e., Dow), tells
the EPA how much pesticide residue is likely to remain on
crops based on company test-sprayings. It either conducts
or contracts out federally required toxicity tests to
determine if its product may cause cancer, birth defects or
other health hazards. The results are submitted to EPA
scientists, who analyze the data and draft a preliminary
risk assessment. That draft is then bounced back to the man
ufacturer for a 30-day review period, during which, accord
ing to Housenger, the company can “comment on [the EPA’s]
risk assessment and provide corrections to it.”

I n the case of the widely used organophosphate malathion
this back-and-forthing resulted in a substantial lowering
of the pesticide’s cancer rating. A team of EPA scientists,
headed by senior toxicologist Brian Dementi, analyzed the
health data provided by ChemiNova, malathion’s
manufacturer, and concluded that the chemical causes liver
tumors in lab animals. The team presented its findings to
the EPA’s cancer review committee, which deemed malathion a
“likely human carcinogen.” Dissatisfied with this
interpretation, ChemiNova convened a panel of pathologists
to reexamine the data and draw its own conclusions.
According to Dementi, the panel “severely, remarkably
downgraded the initial [tumorogenic] findings,” prompting
the EPA’s cancer committee to change its malathion ruling
from “likely human carcinogen” to “suggestive evidence of
carcinogenicity.”

The change is not trivial. For likely carcinogens, the EPA
must perform quantitative risk assessments and impose
regulations accordingly. Alternatively, where there is
merely suggestive evidence of a carcinogen, the agency can
dismiss the danger as insignificant.

Dementi has questioned the outside panel’s findings before
the EPA’s cancer review committee and its Scientific
Advisory Panel (SAP), but so far, he says, his concerns
have “fallen on deaf ears.” Meanwhile, a revised
preliminary risk assessment was released for public comment
last May, indicating that there was “insufficient evidence
to assess the potential [of malathion] for causing cancer
in humans.”

Among the more common organophosphates, malathion is used
on nearly 100 food and fiber crops. It is the third most
frequently detected pesticide in our food supply, showing
up in about 17% of items tested by the Food and Drug
Administration. It is also
regularly used for pest control and in aerial sprayings to
combat mosquitoes, as in the well-known 1999-2000 spraying
over New York City to combat the West Nile Virus.

A Call to Arms

Frustrated by the EPA’s lethargic (and arguably
compromised) review efforts, NCAMP’s Feldman fumes that
“The EPA has failed so badly in the pesticide arena that it
is hard to envision the agency… ever adequately
protecting the public.”

Indeed, a full five years after the passage of FQPA and
eight years after the initial NAS report that prompted it,
OPs continue to account for roughly half of the pesticides
sold in America. Some 60 million pounds are applied
annually to 60 million acres of U.S. cropland, while
another 17 million pounds go to insect control as well as
home lawn and garden care.

With the EPA hobbled by inefficiencies and questionable
alliances, say Feldman and others, the onus is on
individuals to protect themselves. First, know what you’re
eating. Second, petition
your congressmen and the EPA for a universal ban on
organophosphate pesticides. 

Finally, use your cash to support organic agriculture. So
long as the EPA snuggles up to the chemical giants, it’s up
to consumers to keep the giants out of the kitchen.