How a pesticide got banned

The EPA's decision sets a new threshold for food safety.

Getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables is hard enough. So parents shouldn't have to worry about pesticide residue on those apples, pears, or peas, figures the US Environmental Protection Agency.

But as it tries to translate this principle into action, the EPA is learning that hornet's nests can be found in places other than the eaves of a barn.

A mammoth government review of US pesticide use - of which this week's EPA ban of most uses of the chemical methyl parathion is one part - has infuriated folks on both sides of the issue.

It's a textbook example of the Washington axiom that agency rulemaking can be more intense than the legislative action that preceded it, especially when it involves children, inexact science, and millions of dollars in added costs.

"When a family gathers around the kitchen table, it should know that the food it eats is as safe as it can be," said EPA administrator Carol Browner this week when announcing the methyl parathion ban. "That is what this administration is doing.'

This debate has its roots in 1996, when Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act with relatively little debate.

The landmark FQPA was an attempt to update and simplify previous pesticide control laws. It fundamentally changed the way the government regulated these substances by mandating a new safety standard - "reasonable certainty of no harm" - for all pesticides used on food.

It also included a special provision that made it one of the first environmental laws with a focus on children. The provision requires that EPA scientists explicitly determine whether allowable pesticide levels are safe for kids - and to include "an additional safety factor of up to ten-fold, if necessary, to account for uncertainty of data relative to children," according to EPA documents.

These general goals were easy for members of Congress to agree on. But as the EPA has moved to write details of regulations it has drawn fierce lobbying from environmentalists and farmers alike.

Take the law's timetable.

Under the 1996 legislation, EPA was directed to finish reviewing safety levels for about 3,250 levels, or uses of a particular pesticide on a particular crop, by August 3. The most dangerous chemicals were supposed to get top review priority.

Environmentalists charge that the EPA has squeaked under this deadline via feints and manipulations. Many of the levels EPA has reviewed involve chemicals that aren't widely used anymore, they charge, while dangerous and widely used substances have been left for later.

Some green groups say they are contemplating filing a lawsuit, charging that the EPA has not fulfilled its obligations under the law.

The EPA has taken one high-profile step, banning most uses of methyl parathion, a widely used and highly toxic chemical that is a distant cousin of some World War II nerve agents, after this year's growing season. It also tightened uses of another pesticide, azinphos methyl, in administrator Browner's Aug. 2 announcement.

But these actions merely distract from work not done, according to environmentalists.

"This action is very welcome, but these are actions the EPA should have taken long ago. Is this sufficient to protect kids? No," says Jacqueline Hamilton, lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But farm groups have a different view. Both methyl parathion and azinphos methyl have been safely used for years, claims American Farm Bureau President Dean Kleckner. EPA has acted before finishing promised tests and risk assessments on these substances, he says.

"EPA's announcement is a political event, timed to coincide with the August 3 deadline for reassessing many pesticide uses under the Food Quality Protection Act," said Mr. Kleckner.

For California apple grower and third-generation farmer Pete Pankey, the EPA actions mean he is running out of options.

Next season, he'll have fewer effective pesticides to use to keep worms out of his Galas and Granny Smiths.

He knows he'll lose some crops. But he'll get by - his hands are strong, his trees are healthy. If the EPA decides to ban more of his pesticides, however, he could be in trouble.

"It's like you've got a tool box and I start taking away tools," says the co-owner of Key Farm in Grapevine, Calif., below the burnt maize spine of the Tehachapi Mountains.

"You can get by using the crescent wrench as a hammer," says Mr. Pankey. "Then I take away the crescent wrench. Now you're running out of options."

There are alternatives to the recently-controlled pesticides, Pankey admits. He's tried them.

One year he used only an alternative chemical, which is meant to disrupt the mating pattern of particular pests. "We ended up with some pretty serious infestation," he said.

Other alternatives were somewhat more effective, but cost more. One had to be applied every four days.

"If [farmers] can find something that can replace these pesticides, then they are ready and willing, but in many cases, the alternatives are more expensive - or else the farmers would be using them," says Bob Krauter of the California Farm Bureau.

If farmers start losing crops to pests, it could open the door to imports, and imported foods are often held to lower pesticide standards than US products, Mr. Krauter points out.

If you look around the US, we are "head and shoulders" above most of the world, according to Krauter.

Farmers are also upset about the timing of the EPA's decision.

While their move does not ban any chemical until the next growing season, it comes right at the beginning of harvest time for many fruits and vegetables. Farm groups worry that consumers might become leery about the safety of their 1999 products.

While environmentalists are pinning hopes on a lawsuit to make EPA move faster, farm groups are hoping for new laws to mandate that it move slower.

Farm state legislators have already filed three separate bills that would substantially amend the 1996 law which began the whole process.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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