A federal appeals court has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency must once again consider data from industry studies that test pesticides on humans. The Bush Administration had imposed a temporary ban on that data. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Elizabeth Shogren, who covers the environment for the Los Angeles Times, about the court decision.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Humans can be used as subjects when testing the safety limits of pesticide exposure, according to a federal appeals court ruling that reverses policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A year and a half ago, the EPA had put a ban on accepting scientific work employing this controversial practice. Joining me now from our Washington bureau is Elizabeth Shogren. She covers the environment for The Los Angeles Times.
Elizabeth, tell me, why did this issue end up in court in the first place?
SHOGREN: Well, a pesticide industry group sued. It claimed that the EPA broke the law by imposing the moratorium without first issuing a notice of its plans and then collecting public comment. The Court of Appeals for D.C. agreed. They directed the Agency to go back to accepting the tests on a case-by-case basis using the highest ethical standards.
CURWOOD: Why would the pesticide industry want to use human volunteers in its pesticide studies?
SHOGREN: To understand that, you have to know that EPA bases its pesticide regulations on animal tests. The Agency determines the risk factor for lab animals, and then multiplies it by ten as a safety cushion for humans.
Pesticide companies want to use the human tests to prove that larger amounts of pesticides are safe. That way they could use pesticides that might otherwise be banned, use more on crops, or apply these pesticides closer to harvest.
CURWOOD: I am still wondering, though, about the ethical question. I mean, why would you want to give humans something that could make them sick?
SHOGREN: Pesticide companies say that it is important to use all of the pesticides that are available on the market. This enables American farmers to compete with farmers abroad, and also brings more crops to market. But a lot of public health advocates and environmental groups are very disturbed by this process. They say that it exposes people needlessly to toxic chemicals that could potentially have lots of negative impacts.
CURWOOD: Now, aside from ethical concerns, what are some of the other criticisms that have been thrown at the question of using humans to test pesticides?
SHOGREN: Critics say these tests are done on too few people to be statistically significant. They also say these tests can’t determine the impact on the most vulnerable people, such as children and the elderly, because these people aren’t in the studies. They are also critical that the companies are the ones who do the tests.
CURWOOD: Now, in the past, the Bush Administration has seemed to have a couple of different minds on this issue. Tell us about that.
SHOGREN: Well, historically these tests were rarely used. Then, in the mid-90s, Congress made it much harder for pesticides to pass registration. And all of a sudden these tests started cropping up at EPA. The Clinton Administration was upset by that and they banned the tests, but only temporarily, and they never officially banned them.
Then when the Bush Administration came into power, they quietly told the pesticide industry that they would again start looking at these tests. That fact came out in a news report, actually a story I wrote, and then there was lots of press coverage of that issue.
CURWOOD: But then, the story changed again.
SHOGREN: Right. And at the end of 2001, Christie Whitman, the EPA administrator, announced that there would be a moratorium set again on these tests. And she asked the National Academy of Sciences to research the issue and write a report about it.
CURWOOD: Why do you think Christie Todd Whitman took that action?
SHOGREN: I think it was because of the press reports. At least, that’s what brought it to her attention. And I think it was an embarrassing situation.
CURWOOD: I remember back then that in fact, when we were trying to cover this question of human testing of pesticides, the EPA declined to be interviewed on tape. It didn’t seem like they really wanted to talk about it.
SHOGREN: I think it is one of those issues that they can think about themselves practically and they can, from a scientific basis, they can justify it. But then when you talk about it in public, it just doesn’t pass the squeamish factor, both because of the ethical considerations and because of the possible dangers to humans.
CURWOOD: How is the Bush Administration reacting today to this court decision?
SHOGREN: Well, they say they are disappointed with the decision. In the meantime, they have also announced that they are going to propose a new official regulation about human testing, and whether or not the results can be used for the EPA’s pesticide registrations. And this time, they are going to use a public comment period and go through all the official procedures. They say they don’t know yet how long that will all take. In the meantime, they are waiting for the National Academy’s report to come out, and that should be later this year.
CURWOOD: Now, some critics have expressed concern that with Christie Todd Whitman leaving her post this month, that the EPA may not be as committed to the banning of the use of humans to test pesticides. What is your take on that?
SHOGREN: I think it is too early to tell. It depends a lot on what the Academy of Sciences says, and also who becomes the next administrator. Clearly, there are senior people at the Agency who had wanted to accept these tests and probably would favor their return.
CURWOOD: Elizabeth Shogren covers the environment for The Los Angeles Times. Thanks for taking this time with me today.
SHOGREN: I’ve enjoyed it.
[MUSIC: Snares & Kites “Anticipation Proclamation” Tricks of Trapping Inbetweens Records (1999)]
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