August 3, 1999
The Environmental Protection Agency has restricted the use of two common pesticides. But is the decision based on "good" science?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The pesticide debate is first tonight. Kwame Holman begins our coverage.
KWAME HOLMAN: Yesterday, environmental protection agency administrator Carol Browner announced new restrictions on two widely used pesticides. She cited health risks they pose to infants and children.
|Announcing new pesticide restrictions|
CAROL BROWNER: We are announcing cancellation agreements and risk reduction strategies that will ban the use of the pesticide methyl parathion on all fruits and many vegetables. For another pesticide, azinphos methyl, these actions will provide for major reductions in its use on foods common to children's diets, like apples, peaches, and pears.
KWAME HOLMAN: Methyl parathion and azinphos methyl are among about 40 pesticides classified as organophosphates used by thousands of U.S. farmers. The chemicals are applied to a variety of crops including grains, vegetables, and fruits, to control worms and insects, as well as in-home pest control.
The EPA's new restrictions stem from concern the two pesticides may cause damage to the human brain and central nervous system. That's especially true in young children, whose bodies still are developing, which the EPA says makes them more susceptible to chemical corruption. The agency also said children tend to eat proportionately more fruits and vegetables than adults, which puts them at a much greater risk.
The EPA acted under a 1996 law, the Food Quality Protection Act, which set tougher standards in order to protect infants and children from pesticide risks. Under the law, the agency was required to review the safety of more than 9,000 chemicals, with emphasis on how they may affect children. The 3,000 chemicals deemed most dangerous were to be examined within three years to determine their risk of causing cancer, nerve damage, birth defects, and reproductive problems.
Today marked the deadline for the EPA's initial review. But despite the EPA's announcement, some environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the agency. One group, the National Resources Defense Council, said the EPA had failed under the law to test and review the safety of the riskiest chemicals.
JACQUELINE HAMILTON, NRDC Lawyer: Our lawsuit challenges EPA's failure to perform required safety reviews and take action on outdated hazardous pesticides that pose unacceptable risks to children.
KWAME HOLMAN: The companies that manufacture the newly regulated chemicals did not challenge the EPA decision, agreeing to abide by the restrictions. But an industry representative charged the limits were based on political science over sound science, and said the EPA should have done more testing. Agriculture groups and a pesticide trade association also have filed suit against the EPA charging the regulator failed to meet scientific standards in the review process. The new limits will affect treatment of fruit and vegetable crops next spring. Meanwhile, the EPA plans to complete its study of some 40 other high-risk agricultural chemicals within 18 months.
|A discussion with Carol Browner|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And EPA Administrator Browner joins us now.
CAROL BROWNER: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Fill this out a bit. Why did you restrict usage of these two pesticides?
CAROL BROWNER: Well, it's important to understand that these are really 1950-era pesticides, and for the first time ever we made a decision to protect the health of our children, to protect our young children particularly, to focus on their diets, these old, old pesticides that are used on the foods that our children eat more than some of the other foods, and to set a standard that would really protect the health of our children. That's what this is about, protecting the health of our children.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Were you looking at residue levels on fruit? Did you find residue levels that might not be safe?
CAROL BROWNER: What we're looking at is a whole class of sort of the riskiest, the oldest pesticides, and what we know about that whole class of pesticides is that they're neuro toxins, and that while we do have a safe food supply in the United States, this is 1999. We can do much better for our children. There are new alternatives; there are better farming methods. We don't have to rely on these 1950-era pesticides to provide our children with a healthy, balanced diet.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the fruits and vegetables that children ate, say last -- or are eating now that were sprayed last spring with these pesticides, are they safe?
CAROL BROWNER: We would recommend to every parent to continue to give their children a balanced diet, to give them fruit and vegetables. What we're doing is we're taking a step that will allow us to get an even safer food supply, but it is important, it is very, very important that we continue to feed our children a balanced diet while we take these steps.
And we were very successful in this action in getting the companies to agree to drop the use of these chemicals in the next growing season. And that will allow us to provide the protection to our children that much faster than even Congress would have allowed us to do it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now this action, Ms. Browner, was part of a larger process, right? Please explain that larger process mandated by the 1996 law. We heard about it in the introductory piece. But tell us more and why this is so significant. You're using new standards, aren't you?
CAROL BROWNER: Yes. We are using a new law. And it's important to understand that. The food safety law that had been on the books when President Clinton came to town was largely focused on processed foods and cancer. We went to Congress. We demanded that Congress modernize that law, that they do three things: One, require that all foods be subjected to rigorous testing, not just processed or canned foods. Two, that we look at all health risks, not simply cancer risks, but all health risks. And three, that we provide a margin of safety for our children.
The President signed that law three years ago, and we have now been doing all of the rigorous scientific work that resulted in yesterday's announcement and our commitment to a firm schedule to complete review of all of these organophosphates and to provide that margin of safety, particularly for our children. First time ever - first time ever we've provided a margin of safety for children in this country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The process seems to have gotten very contentious. I think the environmental groups on the 52-member advisory panel, which is part of this process, walked out of it in April. And there are these two lawsuits that were described in the introductory piece -- one from environmental groups, one from the trade associations for the food and the pesticide manufacturers. Why has it gotten so contentious? How do you explain this?
CAROL BROWNER: Well, I think there are some who think we are going too fast. There are some who would like us to go faster. This is not easy work that we're doing. These involve hundreds of scientific studies that have to be carefully analyzed, are difficult decisions to be made. We are doing it in a thoughtful and a timely manner and we are committed to completing the work in the next 18 months.
We've never attempted anything like this before at the Environmental Protection Agency. And with yesterday's announcement focusing on two of the riskiest pesticides, we really are demonstrating our commitment to providing that margin of safety for our children.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay, Ms. Browner, don't go away. We'll come back to you.
|An accelerated restricition process?|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now we get two additional perspectives from Jay
Vroom, president of the American Crop Protection Association, which
represents pesticide manufacturers and distributors; and Ken Cook, president
of the Environmental Working Group. Thank you both for being with us.
JAY VROOM, American Crop Protection Association: Well, I think EPA and Administrator Browner have the right idea and concept and commitment. We are concerned about the fact that these two decisions yesterday went just a little fast, faster than the process that we had agreed to in this reassessment advisory committee process that Ken and I were both a part of until some left.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mean these two specific products were banned before the scientific tests you thought should be done on them were done?
JAY VROOM: Correct. All the science isn't in. And all the review in terms of the impacts and sort of the sorting out if we take one away here, what will happen to growers over here. As an example, one of the chemicals was used on nursery stock. The only available alternative is methyl bromide, a chemical that EPA has much earlier identified as being a potential threat for global warming and is trying to phase out.
So what are going to happen to those nursery growers in this lurch? So we've gone a little faster than I think the process was designed to allow in terms of science to be applied. Obviously the manufacturers -- all of who are members of my association -- are committed to try to do the right thing, work closely and carefully with both Administrator Browner and the Department of Agriculture to find the right kinds of solutions, but we need a little more time than was afforded with these two particular chemical examples.
And part of that was driven out of the political motivation to try to get the deadline met this week and to show some action. And I think we understand that politics is part of the pesticide debate. But we also want politics to take into consideration, as your earlier piece talked about, the fact that the American farmer is down right now and anything that is an unnecessary additional economic hardship needs to be given a little more consideration than it perhaps has been given by these two chemical decisions this week.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ken Cook, your reaction to the restrictions on these pesticides?
KEN COOK, Environmental Working Group: Well, I think there is some very good news here in the sense that as the administrator said, this is the first time the government has said there is a risk to children in the food supply from pesticides and we have to take some strong action. And they did on one pesticide, methyl parathion. The government studies showed that they couldn't wait. This compound has been on the market for decades as Administrator Browner said. We are talking about Sputnik-era technology here. It's time to move on.
This chemical in EPA's review was almost 900 percent above the risk level that the agency had set for protecting children from the ages of one to six. And here's the risk they're worried about: Not long-term cancer risks. They are worried about the risk that a child eating a few pieces of fruit might suffer some nervous system effect, short-term effects, blurred vision, nausea, headaches within a matter of hours. So this is a very toxic compound, and Administrator Browner was right to move quickly on it. But we have two problems.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the food that was sprayed with it already this year?
KEN COOK: That's problem number one.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just briefly.
KEN COOK: Well, briefly, we are now in a situation where the administrator -- the government has said this compound is too dangerous to use next year. But it's already been used on food this year. It's coming to the tables. And the government really gave us -- gave consumers who might reasonably say they want to take steps this year, not wait a year to protect their child, the government was not at all helpful in saying what they might be able to do. And there are plenty of things to do besides worrying about -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Like?
KEN COOK: You could eat lots of other fruits and vegetables that don't have these compounds on it. Apples are high in it, peaches and pears; there are many other choices out there for kids to get their nutrition.
JAY VROOM: But I think that brings us back to the point I was making, which is that these decisions were accelerated just a little ahead of the process that otherwise would have allowed the science to come in, perhaps shown, we believe, that these chemicals were a lot closer to 100 percent of the risk cup than perhaps the very cautious and conservative estimates that were incorporated to make this decision deadline. And decisions by deadline instead of by good science, if it continues, is a real threat to our farm economy and also the confidence of the American consumer. We need to emphasize the food is safe.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me ask you both this question, the same question that I asked Ms. Browner. The environmental groups have walked out and some of your -- I know your organization is not part of this lawsuit. But other organizations you work closely with are. Your trade association also has a lawsuit. You are both coming at this from these two different angles. Why? Is it because this is such a new process, a new way of looking at it and it's more contentious than ever, or this is just the way these kinds of things go? Mr. Cook.
KEN COOK: I mean, I think from the environmental and consumer communities' viewpoint, this has gone way too slow. As Administrator Browner said, these compounds have been on the market important decades and there have been concerns about health risks for decade. I think what we're concerned about is that no one has done more to protect kids than Administrator Browner while she has been in EPA, but the system is still tilted so heavily toward the pesticide interest, it's so oriented toward keeping these old products on the market, that it's been very, very difficult to overcome that, including lots of former EPA employees who regulated pesticides now working for industry.
So the system is still out of balance and it has slowed down this process mightily. And as a result, little kids are going to be eating fruits and vegetables this year and next year that have, we think, unsafe levels of these pesticides on them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You want other pesticides to be either banned or very heavily restricted that haven't been so far? Is that part of it?
KEN COOK: That's right. I mean, Congress set forth a wide range of pesticides by the law that should have been dealt with by today. And they weren't.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Vroom.
JAY VROOM: Elizabeth, I think that you need to go back and ask Ken to show the science that would support his allegation that the food isn't safe. The food is safe. I think that Administrator Browner at the press conference yesterday said we are trying to move a safe food supply to an even safer place, to continue to use public policy to advance sound science, and to improve the safety of our food supply while continuing to allow the American farmer the ability to be competitive and help feed a troubled and hungry world.
The United Nations just predicted that sometime in the next few weeks, the six billionth person will be born on the face of this earth. Two billion of those are undernourished; 800 million of us on this planet are near starvation. We do not have a food oversupply, we have a food distribution problem. We need to continue to work on having sound technology and good, inexpensive products for farmers to respond to a very important world food need.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay, thank you both.
|Carol Browner responds|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, Ms. Browner, this is your chance to -- let's respond first or I want to ask you to respond first to the concerns that Mr. Vroom raised. Science isn't -- your science isn't good enough. You're going too fast and you may be hurting the production of crops that are vitally necessary.
CAROL BROWNER: Well, first of all there is an abundance of science with respect to these chemicals. We have hundreds of scientific studies that we based our decision on. There is very, very clear evidence of the need to reduce, to ban the use of some of these chemicals. And that's the step we have taken. I think it is important to understand -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Excuse me for interrupting. Were you hurried by this deadline today?
CAROL BROWNER: No. Absolutely not. We have been engaged in this process in a thoughtful way -- for three years it has been an open process. Everybody has been fully informed. We worked very closely with USDA. We are simply doing the job that Congress told us to do, which is to protect the health of our children; to make tough decisions, to make difficult decisions but to do it in a thoughtful, a scientific manner. And that's what we did.
I do want to make one point. There are alternatives available; these are very, very old chemicals. Science gives us better answers. Farmers give us better answers. There are new farming technologies that are being used. And when we look at these new technologies, these newer products, what we see are safe, cost effective alternatives that will allow our children to have an even healthier and even safer diet.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And please respond to Mr. Cook's criticism and specifically that there are products being used which are unsafe and could threaten children and in fact the use of these products you restricted today, their use earlier this year could even be dangerous.
CAROL BROWNER: I want to just remind parents that we believe very strongly at the Environmental Protection Agency in a balanced diet. Please continue to feed your children fruits and vegetables. You can wash them. You can peel them. That will give you some protection. But when we look at these issues very, very important to the health of our children is a balanced diet. In the meantime, we'll continue to take a very safe food supply and make it even safer based on protecting our children's health based on science.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Well, thank you all very much for being with us.