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EPA Drags Their Heels on Getting Dangerous Pesticides off the Market
EPA Caught Between Farmers, Food Safety Fears

By Tom Kenworthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 1999; Page A1

For 20 years, Steve Strong has been raising peaches, plums
and nectarines in California's San Joaquin Valley, relying
on a pesticide called methyl parathion to control worms and
scale insects. "It's a very useful tool," Strong said. "It
gives us a hammer to halt an economic disaster."

So along with thousands of other growers, Strong will be
paying close attention today when the Environmental
Protection Agency is expected to announce several thousand
new limits on the amount of pesticide residues allowed on
food. Among the announcements, the EPA is expected to ban
most uses of methyl parathion and a related pesticide on
fruits frequently consumed by infants and children.

The restrictions stem from the Food Quality Protection Act,
which mandated a broad overhaul of pesticide regulations to
better assess and prevent risks to public health,
particularly in children. The law directs the EPA, for
example, to apply "an additional tenfold margin of safety"
for infants and children except when there is "reliable
data" that a less stringent standard would be safe.

Born in a rare burst of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill --
it passed both houses of Congress in a period of eight days
in 1996 without a dissenting vote -- the law has been the
subject of furious infighting ever since as the EPA has
moved to implement it.

Methyl parathion and the roughly four dozen other
"organophosphates" account for about half the pesticides
used in the United States. Because they are so widely used
-- on grains, vegetables and fruits, as well as on pets and
to control mosquitoes and termites -- and because of
longstanding concerns about their safety, the EPA has made
a priority the review of organophosphates, including the
methyl parathion used by Strong on his 2,000 acres of fruit
in California.

The stakes for both industry and the general public are
huge. Depending on how tough the EPA is in restricting
their use, farmers and other users may have to switch to
more expensive alternatives.

A year ago, alarmed by the direction the EPA was taking,
the American Crop Protection Association warned that
"sooner or later, virtually all pesticides and pesticide
uses will be jeopardized."

Then three months ago, all seven environmental and farm
worker groups serving on an EPA advisory panel on the
reassessment process resigned en masse. The pesticide
industry and agribusiness interests, charged one
environmentalist, had "hijacked" the process.

The intense battle over implementation of the new law is a
classic example of how the complex process of agency
rulemaking is often far more important than congressional
legislating, and of how difficult it is to translate a
relatively simple goal -- in this case ensuring Americans
their food supply is safe -- into practice.

To guarantee that Americans are protected from potentially
unsafe levels of pesticide residues on food, the new law
directed the EPA to reexamine the allowable levels for
hundreds of different pesticides. Overall, the agency must
review about 9,700 levels -- each use of a particular
pesticide on an individual crop. The law requires complete
evaluations of one-third of them by Tuesday, focusing first
on those that pose the highest risk.

Although among the most important and far-reaching
provisions in the law are stringent safety requirements for
children -- a response to a 1993 National Academy of
Sciences report -- the law also requires the EPA to take
into account the aggregate risk from different sources --
drinking water and pest-control efforts in the home, for
example, as well as food -- and to consider the cumulative
effects of pesticides that act in a similar manner.

"The science here is enormously challenging," said a senior
EPA official who spoke about the upcoming announcement on
the condition of anonymity. "The act requires us for the
first time ever to look at all the exposure pathways for
these chemicals. . . . All of it is very controversial."

About 60 million pounds of the cheap and effective
organophosphates are used on about 60 million acres each
year, and another 17 million pounds are used in the home
and for other non-agricultural purposes. Organophosphates
work by interfering in the normal transmission of nerve
impulses, and they are effective against many types of
insects.

Though they do not persist in the environment like the
banned pesticide DDT, organophosphates as a class are
highly toxic, which is why some were produced as nerve
agents during World War II.

Alarmed by their potential to harm the developing nervous
systems of infants and children -- who eat many foods with
organophosphate residues -- environmental groups have
called for a ban on many of these chemicals. In a recent
report, for example, the Environmental Working Group
estimated that more than 1 million children a day consume
"an unsafe dose" of organophosphates.

"We've been saying for a long time these organophosphates
pose a risk to kids," said Ken Cook, the organization's
president.

But despite the attention paid to organophosphates, it is
unlikely that when the EPA announces the results of its
reassessment Monday it will have completed its work on
those chemicals. According to several people who have
closely tracked the agency's progress, EPA is likely to
take action against a few high-profile targets -- banning
methyl parathion after this year's growing season, for
example -- while setting a timetable for completing action
on the remaining organophosphates.

And in those cases where it does propose to eliminate
specific pesticide uses, EPA will establish "a common
sense-type transition strategy" to minimize hardships for
farmers, said an agency official.

"What they want to do is announce some very modest steps on
a handful of organophosphates to suggest they are doing
what they should be doing," said Erik Olsen, a senior
attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which
is planning to file a lawsuit against the EPA over the
issue. "But clearly they are not going to have taken action
on the vast majority of organophosphates by Aug. 3. They
are way behind."

Jay Vroom, president of the American Crop Protection
Association, which represents the interests of farmers and
the pesticide industry, predicts that the agricultural
community will be treated fairly in Monday's decision. "I
think the agency has struggled mightily and done good
work," he said. "I'd say it will be fair, and there will be
some pain, but we will survive."

Olsen and other environmentalists feel that, to this point,
the agricultural and chemical industries have won the
battle over implementation of the pesticide law. "They've
pulled out all the stops," Olsen said.

A key moment, the environmentalists argue, came in April of
last year, when Vice President Gore sent a memo to EPA
Administrator Carol M. Browner and Agriculture Secretary
Dan Glickman. Gore directed that the Department of
Agriculture -- long viewed by environmentalists as favoring
the pesticide interests of farmers -- be included in "a
sound regulatory approach" that would give "due regard" to
the "needs of our Nation's agricultural producers."

To the administration's critics in the environmental
community, that sent a clear signal to an agency that the
Environmental Working Group has called a "farm team for the
pesticide lobby" because so many top pesticide regulators
have gone on to represent industry interests in the private
sector.

If his side is winning the faraway Washington battle, it
sometimes doesn't feel that way to California farmer
Strong, who worries what he will do if the EPA takes methyl
parathion out of his pest control arsenal. "We have no big
hammers to replace it," he said.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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