Congress must act to keep us safe from high-risk pesticides
In the summer of 1996, the 104th Congress took less than a combined 15 minutes to pass the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) unanimously in both the House and Senate. This legislation focused on one of the touchiest public health issues government must contend with: how to keep pregnant women, infants and children safe given the presence of pesticide residues in food.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked for over four years on the policies and regulations needed to implement the FQPA. By the mid-2000s, the agency had taken significant actions on just a few high-risk insecticides, yet a few years later, the EPA declared “mission accomplished.”
Instead of marking the end of a long, fractious debate, the FQPA simply marked the beginning of more disputes as many decisions made by the initial deadline failed to protect women and children. The legislation required the agency to assure a “reasonable certainty of no harm” from the pesticides consumed by pregnant women and children in food, but it fell far short of meeting this mandate.
In 2017, the EPA administrator did a 180-degree turn and refused to finalize the agency’s Office of Pesticide Programs’ 2015 proposal to revoke the tolerances of allowable uses of a pesticide called chlorpyrifos. This toxic insecticide disrupts brain development when women are exposed during pregnancy at levels well below what EPA currently allows. Its widespread use on fruit and vegetable crops makes it nearly impossible to avoid daily exposures, especially among consumers eating the recommended seven or more servings of fresh produce every day.
A consortium of health, farmworker, child protection and environmental groups took legal action against the EPA in 2007 over its failure to adhere to the requirements of the FQPA in the case of chlorpyrifos. After several years of court hearings, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the consortium. The latest Ninth Circuit order gives the EPA until Aug. 20, 2021, to revoke the tolerances or issue their safety finding. The EPA’s decision on this consequential insecticide will be a critical early test of the EPA under President Biden’s administration.
Over the last decade, pesticide registrants have gained a worrisome level of influence over the science supporting EPA pesticide risk assessments. Registrants have learned from experience that if they fight long and hard enough, they can pressure the EPA to stall decisions by agreeing more studies are needed (while products stay on the market). This pattern of EPA acquiescence brought on by company pressure over the last two decades is a prelude to the flurry of pesticide litigation that began in 2015 with the filing of the first cases involving a popular herbicide and its association with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After losing the first three trials decisively, the company that produced the herbicide reached a near $11 billion settlement encompassing about three-quarters of the approximate 125,000 cases filed to date. Several billion more will likely change hands before all pending and future cases are litigated or settled.
Two other pesticides are caught up in similar litigation: chlorpyrifos and links to child neurodevelopment, and the herbicide paraquat and its link to Parkinson’s disease. Cases over these three pesticides have brought into the public arena disturbing insights into how pesticide registrants exert excessive interference in EPA’s decision-making process, including attempts to control the meaning of “sound science” in pesticide risk-assessment decisions.
Loss of confidence in the science supporting pesticide regulation serves no one’s interest, including the public, the pesticide industry and farmers. This is why I joined eight colleagues in publishing a commentary in the scholarly journal Environmental Health that addresses the root causes of the systemic problems confronting the EPA’s pesticide registration and review process.
We offer several concrete recommendations. Two require simple — and we hope widely embraced — amendments in federal law. First, independent scientists not working for or aligned with the pesticide industry should conduct the core toxicology studies supporting EPA registration decisions, with funding provided via registration fees.
Second, Congress should end the “Confidential Business Information” designation of pesticide statements of formula, so scientists and doctors know what is in products causing illness or undermining environmental quality. Without that information, we are flying blind when trying to prevent illness and disease from high-risk pesticides.
Our commentary explains why just these two changes will help assure that solid, credible science supports future decisions made by EPA about pesticide risks and safety. Such transparency in science and public health is needed so that Americans can finally rest assured their daily lives are free of health risks from pesticides.
Melissa J. Perry is a professor and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University.