Putting on the blinders at the EPA over water pollution issues.
A drunk is crawling along the sidewalk beneath a street lamp.
"What's the trouble?" asks a passer-by.
"Losht my car keys," answers the drunk.
"You dropped them here?"
"No. I dropped them over behind the bushes."
"Then why are you looking here?"
"It's dark over there."
This hoary tale sprang to mind the other day when I learned that an herbicide that may be applied to Lake George in upstate New York to control a weed called Eurasian water milfoil breaks down eventually into a dozen other chemicals, one of which can cause miscarriages, birth defects, stillbirths and liver damage and can interfere with the male reproductive system.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have discovered this fact and informed the Lake George authorities long ago. (Lake George provides drinking water for several thousand people in the summertime.) But, like our imbiber, it didn't look in the right place—that is, if it looked at all.
Indeed, when informed by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund of this looming problem, a spokesman for the EPA wasn't surprised. The chances of EPA discovering such a thing were between "slim and none," according to the official. EPA is too short-handed to investigate breakdown products of all the chemicals it approves, he explained.
This is a rather startling admission—one that raises fundamental questions about just exactly what the Environmental Protection Agency protects. It also suggests that the highly touted system EPA recently instituted to test new chemicals may be far from all it's cracked up to be.
There are hundreds of thousands of synthetic chemicals in everyday use in the United States, and the number grows by several thousand each year. These include pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and others that are meant to be poisonous. Thousands more—dyes, drugs, preservatives, solvents and scents, among many others—are supposed to be benign but frequently turn out to have side effects. (Biologist Garrett Hardin has defined a side effect as "a surprise result, the existence of which you will deny as long as you possibly can.")
In any event, the General Accounting Office estimates that it will take EPA until well into the next century to test all the toxic chemicals currently in use. But the Lake George herbicide—Sonar—is a new product. As such, it was subjected to far more rigorous testing than products that went on the market before the last revision of the Federal Insecticide, Pesticide and Rodenticide Act a few years back.
That law, as intended by Congress, was meant to ensure that new products would be thoroughly tested before going into general use. So what happened? EPA neglected one of the most obvious questions: What does this product form as it breaks down? The answer, as it happens, has been published in scientific literature and was readily available. In fact, the information on the toxicity of the breakdown product—monomethylformamide—was in EPA's own computer. If EPA failed to look into its own computer on water pollution issues for the answers to this basic question, one can only wonder what other chemicals it isn't asking this question about.
In their promotional brochure, the manufacturers of Sonar claim that "as effective as Sonar is on target water weeds, it won't restrict swimming, fishing or drinking, even immediately after application.... [It has] no environmental side effects." Wilbur Dow, owner of the Lake George Steamboat Company and fervent promoter of the use of Sonar on the lake, told a newspaper reporter that it "has less toxicity than your morning coffee." These statements are untrue, but they also miss the point: Once Sonar has disappeared, what has it turned into?
New York authorities are at present considering whether to permit the use of Sonar in Lake George. Other methods of water milfoil control are being investigated and may prove feasible.
Sonar is approved for use in 48 states, all based on the incomplete EPA data.
Tom Turner, a writer and editor who's worked in the environmental field for 17 years, is with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, an independent environmental law firm that represents many organizations across the country. It is supported principally by private donations. For more information, write: Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, San Francisco, CA.
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