Air Date: Week of September 24, 1993
Host Steve Curwood talks to EPA Administrator Carol Browner about the Administration's new pesticide plan. The plan would reduce children's risk of exposure to harmful chemicals, and remove some risky pesticides from use entirely. But it could also repeal the Delaney Clause, which requires zero concentration of carcinogens in processed foods, which alarms some critics.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.
When the National Academy of Sciences reported this summer that children face special risks from pesticide residues in food, the Clinton Administration promised sharp reductions in pesticide use. Well, the Clinton plan has just been presented to Congress, and it's getting mixed reviews. Environmental activists generally praise it, but some criticize economic exemptions to proposed health standards, and they don't like repealing the ban on trace amounts of cancer-causing pesticides in processed food. Agrichemical companies like that repeal, but they don't like a provision that allows states to choose tougher standards. EPA Administrator Carol Browner is heading up the administration's pesticide reform effort. She's with us from her office in Washington. Thanks for joining us.
BROWNER: Thank you, Steve. It's a pleasure to talk with you.
CURWOOD: Now, you told Congress that the need to change the use of farm chemicals is urgent, and that makes me wonder - how safe is our food supply?
BROWNER: We have the safest food supply in the world, but we have an opportunity to do an even better job and that's what we're asking Congress to do - to make sure that we take every opportunity to protect the children of this country, to achieve pesticide use reductions so that we can protect our drinking water and ground water and our other natural resources.
CURWOOD: In your view, do you think there are a lot of unsafe pesticides on the market today?
BROWNER: I think that there are pesticides that are high-risk that we need to work to bring them down to an acceptable standard, a rigorous health-based standard. We have several deadlines in the proposal that we made that will force pesticides off the market if they cannot meet a rigorous health-based standard. Again, it's not going to be health versus economics, it's going to be health - health first and foremost. The other thing about the package that I think's important to note is, no longer will the burden be on EPA to show that a pesticide is unsafe. The burden will be on the industry to demonstrate that the use as it relates to particular foods is absolutely safe.
CURWOOD: But in your provision if I read it correctly, the agricultural chemical industry can say, okay, we may have a problem here but it's necessary to the food supply, we get a ten year exemption -
BROWNER: No, it's, there's a transitional period of five years maximum. At the end, if they are not below negligible risk they are off the market.
CURWOOD: Now, I want to talk about some of the aspects of your proposal. There's one pretty controversial that's taking some heavy cannon fire already and that's to get rid of the Delaney Clause, which currently bans any amount of pesticide residue in processed food, or residues that are known to cause cancer in animals. Why do you want to get rid of that provision?
BROWNER: Well, first of all, the Delaney Clause deals with a very narrow part of what people eat, what's on your dinner plate at the end of the day. We want to make sure that in every instance, we're looking at not just cancer but we're looking at chronic effects, we're looking at acute effects, we're looking at birth defects, we're looking at genetic defects, looking at what happens to a pregnant woman, and we're looking at what happens to children. So we want to expand the scope of what we look at.
CURWOOD: Why do you want to eliminate the provision of the law that would outlaw the use of chemicals known to cause cancer in animals? I understand that you're concerned about the other effects of pesticides, and I think a lot of people are as well, but why make it legal to use chemicals that are known to cause cancer -
BROWNER: First of all, we're not making it legal to use anything that is not used today, and in fact we will be changing the uses of many, many things. Delaney focuses on a narrow part of the diet, of the American public's diet. The risk, as it has been interpreted over the last thirty years is called something, something called ten to the minus six - that is a .00001 risk. We are not suggesting that that should be changed. It is almost identical to a zero risk and we will continue as it relates to carcinogens in processed food to apply that very, very stringent standard which we have applied.
CURWOOD: Why are so many environmentalists cranky with your package?
BROWNER: Well, I think that there are particular issues for each of them that are of greater significance than other issues. The groups that I've been talking to do agree that as a comprehensive package this is light years ahead of where we have been. They also agree that what we are doing for kids, we are meeting all of the recommendations put forward by the National Academy of Sciences as it relates to children and infants, that that is something that they are immensely happy with.
CURWOOD: Currently the law of the land is Delaney. About a year ago EPA published a list of chemicals that should be pulled off the market under Delaney. Are you going to take measures to get the chemicals that are now against Delaney off the market?
BROWNER: Right now we will do exactly what the judge has ordered us to do. We take seriously that we have a judge's order and we will comply with the judge's order, and we are moving through that process.
CURWOOD: Carol Browner is the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
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