Interview with Jay Vroom


He is President of the American Crop Protection Association. (Formerly the National Agricultural Chemicals Association) Vroom heads the not-for-profit trade organization of U.S. manufacturers, formulators and distributors of agricultural crop protection and pest control products. Founded in 1933, ACPA has an annual budget of approximately $10 million and a membership composed of companies that produce, sell and distribute virtually all the active compounds used in crop protection chemicals registered for use in the United States.

Interview conducted in March 1998 by Doug Hamilton, producer of FRONTLINE's "Fooling With Nature."

DH: This issue of endocrine disruption that we've been hearing so much about: how significant is it?

JV: I'm not sure if we really know the magnitude of the significance of the issue of endocrine disruption at this point in time. We certainly know that it is an issue of concern and one in which industry as well as government are putting a lot of resources to come up with an answer to that fundamental question.

DH: Do you think that there is enough evidence that there's a real problem?


JV: I think there's evidence to prove, going back really into the sixties and seventies and before, that endocrine disruption can be achieved using outside sources of chemicals, whether they are synthetic or naturally occurring. And, so we know that the potential exists to cause health effects. What we are trying to find out, in terms of environmental presence of certain chemicals, is can those sorts of very minute traces of exposure to certain chemicals cause health effects that we didn't know or think about before? And that's really where we're at today in terms of pursuing those research questions.

DH: In looking at the research, what's your opinion?

JV: At this point, I don't think there are evidences of concern, but I am personally relieved to know that both industry and government are committed to ask the tough scientific questions and put resources behind exploring the answers to those questions.

DH: A lot of people say that if you look at the animal data, there's pretty clear evidence. What about the potential effects on humans, particularly at background levels of these chemicals? What do you make of that evidence?

JV: Well, we as a society don't regularly test humans for health effects of exposure to any number of chemicals. We do have the opportunity to do epidemiology, which is to look at what's happened over the course of time and assemble data that way. But in terms of direct testing of humans, we rely on animal models in the laboratory to make some kind of equivalent comparison. So I think that the animal data, when compared across a variety of species that are tested, should be good indicators for effects in humans. But there needs to be scientific determinations that that is in fact the case. But I'm comfortable with the idea that what we can determine from laboratory animal exposures will be reliable predictors or indicators in terms of human effects.

DH: But you don't think that the laboratory analysis is clear enough yet to say that there's a significant problem for humans.

JV: Not with regard to what we know for industrial/synthetic chemicals, including pesticides, that are in wide use in society today. I think that what we know so far indicates that there is no cause for concern. But, again, I think that it's important that we look not only at laboratory experience but also information from human experience, as well as wildlife. And that's an important factor, one which I think that the public, government, and industry are all committed together to working at exploring and compiling more information and getting a better understanding of what the science is really all about.

DH: A lot of people point to the epidemiology that has come in on sperm counts as an example of how humans may be affected. What do you think of that data?

JV: It appears to me that the data with regard to reproductive effects, including male sperm counts, has been, at the very worst, inconclusive and, at best, an indication that there really isn't a cause for concern. There have been data that have been taken out of context and/or misreported in terms of sperm counts. This has caused some people alarm, but when viewed in a larger context, there seems to be evidence that there aren't really any problems out there.

DH: What sort of evidence?

JV: The epidemiology that has been reported following some of the information that was taken out of context. In Europe in particular I know there have been some studies that when put into the larger context of the data base and over time indicate that male sperm counts have not been affected by exposure to synthetic chemicals.

DH: Given the ambiguity that exists, some people argue that we should take precautions. They talk about the "precautionary principle." Sounds like a reasonable thing: when in doubt, be safe; play it safe. Do you agree with that?

JV: I think the precautionary principle sounds good as a sound bite, but in practice, given the understanding that we're talking about, taking precautions that potentially could take a vast array of plastics, pesticides, other very important tools that mankind uses out of the marketplace because we don't know the answers to new questions that may be invented daily, would be really short-sighted. So you have to come back to the idea that in addition to a precautionary principle there needs to be an element of what risks are tolerable and acceptable and what risks are not. That you have to look on the other side of the equation, which is all about the benefits that products provide to man's existence, and whether those benefits are substantial as well.

So in the case of things like PVC pipe, which is widely used and has benefited human existence through the expansion of sanitary facilities not only in the developed world but the developing world, there are substantial benefits. And, the hypothetical health concerns and allegations around products like that need to be weighed, but not in the context of immediately banning the product, but that may be proven to be perfectly safe, or may need some modifications in terms of its use. But by and large, I think that, weighing the risks and the benefits, we're in a good position right now in society to continue to use a lot of products that have questions that are on the margins in terms of science and science knowledge right now, but do need to be pursued. The other thing that needs to be considered is the relative amount of resources that society has available to devote to looking at and exploring questions of scientific bias related to health. And where do we put the relative priorities of resources. Are there other concerns that really beg for more immediate response and deployment of resources?

I think we're doing a good job in terms of where we're spending resources to explore these questions about endocrine disruption. Some would argue from industry and government alike that we're putting too much resource into the scientific exploration when we have no idea of being able to pinpoint exact health concerns, when there are other areas of society's concern that relate to health effects that should get greater resource deployment. So it's a balance, a give-and-take, that society has to make judgments on, and I think we rely on our governmental leaders to give us some direction and leadership in those kind of resource allocation questions and I think I'm satisfied with the amount of resource dedication and focus that government and industry are providing in this area.

DH: Theo Colborn put forward the hypothesis here in a book, "Our Stolen Future," that's got an awful lot of attention. What do you make of the book and the attention that it's gotten?

JV: I think it's appropriate. It elevated the issue and got government's attention, not only here in the United States but really around the world. I understand there are translations of the book still being undertaken for publishing throughout the rest of the world. And, once again, I think that she raises important issues. It's a very well written book; it's an easy read. But there's a lot more that needs to be done in terms of follow-on research and development and analysis after a popular book like that is published and attention is received by decision-makers to focus resources on answering or addressing those kinds of questions.

DH: I've seen some of your press releases, including one that early on says that "we are deeply concerned about breast cancer and feel compassion for those touched by this disease. We believe that the solution will come through scientific advances." This is a public statement. But then within six months, in a confidential memo that you've written, it says that you will work to defeat any amendment on the Safe Drinking Water Act, which was related to breast cancer concerns. These seem to be saying very different things at the same time.

JV: Well, I think you've taken the internal memoranda out of context. What we were opposed to in both the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Food Quality Protection Act was taking one specific health endpoint and putting that into law, which in a variety of contexts, most importantly the allocation of resources that the government puts against concerns with regard to health effects of chemicals or other health concerns, that it's disproportionate and it forces government and industry allocation of resources in a way that may not be appropriate one year, two years, or ten years after a law is passed. It takes a very long time, as we all know, to pass statutory language.

DH: So are you saying that the government was putting too much emphasis on trying to find the answer to breast cancer?

JV: No, but the suggestion that the specific reference to breast cancer, as one of a wide array of potential issues of health effect concern with regard to endocrine disruption, seemed to us to be inappropriate. I think that the pharmaceutical industry, the food industry, and many others who are involved in a common commitment to advancing the cause of health and research in terms of potential health effects of the use of a wide variety of chemicals all were in concert in indicating that we have no problem with regard to continuing to advance the commitment to research and development with regard to these questions of endocrine disruption, but to specifically say that one health endpoint at potentially the expense of other health endpoints like prostate cancer or anything else, is it inappropriate in terms of that sort of specificity in the law?

DH: But there's a difference between saying that you should be looking for other endpoints as well as breast cancer and saying publicly that we feel deeply about breast cancer, we want to do all we possibly can to get to the bottom of this scientifically, and then in private memos circulated to people in the industry saying "we're going to do all we can to fight this bill" that would be looking at this issue of endocrine disruption.

JV: No, we were against specifically putting an individual health endpoint into statutory language. I don't think there's any real disconnect between those two statements.

DH: But the bill was to set up a process for defining endocrine disruption and screening for endocrine disruption in existing chemicals.

JV: Which is what it does in the endocrine disruption provisions of the Food Quality Protection Act.

DH: But you have not supported that legislation when it first went through.

JV: We opposed putting specific health endpoints into statutory language.

DH: But in a series of memos and comments you have said that you want to eliminate this legislation. Let me quote something here, "this eleventh-hour chicanery that sneaked an endocrine screening amendment into the bill." You said in other memos to "eliminate the D'Amato amendment for Safe Drinking Water Act." That doesn't sound like you're concerned about one specific endpoint; it sounds like you don't want screening for endocrine disruption, period.

JV: Well that's not true. And in fact if you know anything about the historic testing of pesticides you would know that we have been testing for developmental effects and other hormone and endocrine disruption health effects with regard to pesticides for years and years. So we are not opposed to the scientific analysis of our industry's chemical products, for these kinds of health effects. But we were opposed and remain opposed to putting specific health endpoints into statutory language because we think it pushes politics and policy ahead of science. And I think you've seen those kinds of things happen. Why, for instance, would Congress have put those kinds of health endpoints like endocrine disruption into these two statutes that were passed into law in 1996, long before the National Academy of Sciences has released their report on these issues? You know, public resources were dedicated to the National Academy of Sciences' study of these questions, and yet we got statutory language that sort of already made the government's mind up for it before the science reports were developed and delivered to the public.

DH: Well the statute actually says to define and then screen for endocrine disrupting chemicals.

JV: Right.

DH: It does not lay out the endpoint. In fact, a process is going on right now to define what endpoints it should be looking for.

JV: Right. And in fact the reason that specific health endpoints were not incorporated into that statutory language was because of the lobbying position that we took in addressing these issues with Congress as that legislation was developed and incorporated into those two statutes.

DH: You say that your efforts led to the existing legislation. But one e-mail message from your organization said that "we realize we've been blindsided by this legislation."

JV: Again, the art of development of statutory language and the development of laws and regulations in this country, in a democracy, allows for the input and compromise. The final product of endocrine disruption amendments that were incorporated into the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Food Quality Protection Act reflected our concerns. We're committed to living with the way the statute's language was perfected and developed and signed into law by President Clinton, and we're working with it. And in fact it does not reflect the kind of language that was proposed along the way, some of which was brought forward in manners that we did believe blindsided us. But the final effect was legislation that did represent a compromise and we're satisfied with that.

DH: We've spoken to a woman, Dawn Forsythe, who used to work for a pesticide company. She was head of the first endocrine disruption panel organized within the industry. She said that she was shocked when she saw these two memos, when she saw the public memo that said "we're deeply concerned," and the private memo that said "we'll do everything we can to defeat this." She thinks that this really tells the truth of where the industry stood at that time, that the confidential memo said "we're going to work to defeat it," even though the public face is one, as yours is today, of being concerned about trying to get to the bottom of this...but behind the scenes working to stop it any way that you can.

JV: I think that you're taking different communications that were written at different points in time, and the evolution of what resulted in...

DH: There's six months difference in time between the two memos.

JV: Yeah. And what I'm telling you is that there was an enormous amount of compromise and debate and resolution to bring forward compromised legislation in both of those two pieces of federal legislation that were signed by President Clinton that we're satisfied with.

DH: So within that six-month period of time you got a bill that you were happy with.

JV: Yes.

DH: Then why in this other memo do you say that you were blindsided by the legislation?

JV: We were blindsided by an amendment that was brought forward.

DH: Which was the amendment that would set forth the screening and testing.

JV: No. It was an entirely different legislative amendment proposal that bears little resemblance to the final legislative language that was negotiated and passed.

DH: Even as late as January of 1996 you have here "to eliminate the D'Amato amendment," which is the amendment, which you just said had been compromised to the point that you were happy to accept it.

JV: No, no. The original D'Amato amendment bears little resemblance to what was passed in the final version of the law.

DH: Well, this was January of 1996. We have three dates here. In October of 1993 you're saying, "let's get to the bottom of this any way that we can," that you're concerned about the issue. In May of 1994, you're saying to defeat this legislation.

JV: Specific legislative amendment language that did not make it into law.

DH: But then through 1995 and 1996 you continue to work against this legislation.

JV: Specific legislative amendments that were offered that we opposed, that's correct. But we did not oppose the final version because it represented a compromise that we can live with, and we're committed to putting the resources of our industry and those of the federal government together to help research and find the answers that are science-based to these questions. And there is nothing inconsistent with anything that you have that is either private or public that's been written or said by my industry or this association that is inconsistent.

DH: One of the things that's surprising is the language of it. You may disagree with it, but you're talking about this amendment being "snuck in" and "damage control maneuvers are proceeding very well." This all sounds like battlefield strategy, not concerned scientists trying to get to the bottom of an issue.

JV: You can take our words out of context, you can refashion them and make them sound however you would like, but I think the thing that the public cares about is the endpoint, the result, the language in the law, and what is happening in terms of the behavior of industry and government to pursue the commitment of what the law said. That represents a compromise. Is it a tug of war, is it a war of words as the compromise unfolds and politics and policy and science all converge to bring about changes in statutory language? I think all those are probably appropriate analogies and would not shock the public to know that we engage each other in full verbal debate, we exchange written versions of different ways to approach issues, and we come to a compromise. That's what democracy is all about, so I think it's a process that gave the public something that is reasonable in terms of statutory language in these two bills that serves to address and direct public and private resources to look for health concerns and to answer tough scientific questions that are still evolving rapidly in society.

DH: But it points out what many scientists talk about in how the process of science has become so political. That it's about PR battles, that it's about spinning the truth of the issue. It's about winning legislatively as opposed to really trying to understand the science. Do you see those in conflict--the politics versus the science?

JV: There are times when politics and science do get in conflict, and that has to do with expectations and timing. But I think that our form of government and the type of democracy that we have in place, both at the federal and the state level, provides for, over time, a resolution of those kinds of conflicts and really reasonable and good answers. And in fact I think that the public has every reason to feel reassured that there is a common commitment to converging politics and science and giving us good answers so that we can continue to enjoy the kind of good news that we saw in the last few days when the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and others reported that we have, in terms of cancer chronic disease in this country, a significant diminishment of both the incidence of a large number of cancers, as well as a reduction due to cancer of the number of deaths in this country, for the first time since the 1930s.

So we are making progress. There are more things that we need to know and understand, and a lot of the debate, in terms of politics driving compromise over new legislation focussed at other health effects and concerns like endocrine disruption, serves to challenge society, because it has everything to do with how we choose to spend the resources to look at health concerns and health effects, and are we taking resources away from some other pursuit in terms of what real health effects and concerns may be. So it is the art of the compromise, it is the art of the possible, which is what politics is all about, and I think that our government and our industry are doing a reasonable and positive job in terms of helping balance and drive research and science evolution forward.

DH: It's interesting, though. That's not what Senator D'Amato said when we talked to him. Because he said that the industry worked to defeat the legislation that he passed, that he was a sponsor of, and that they were surprised by it, that he had to resist them.

JV: That's true in terms of what he originally offered. We were not comfortable with his original amendment language. But, again, through the art of give-and-take and compromise and dialogue we were able to achieve a final result that we can live with, that we think is good for America.

DH: He said right up to the end, with the legislation, that it was a battle.

JV: Where's the endpoint? Is it the last five minutes or the last five days or the last five years? It's all semantics and I would suggest that the only thing that's important is what got passed into law and signed by President Clinton and is being implemented right now by the Environmental Protection Agency.

DH: This legislation has potentially huge financial implications for your industry, doesn't it?

JV: I would say that the implications for our industry are substantial and potentially very significant but less so compared to most other walks of life and areas of industry because our products are so thoroughly tested already. That we know a great deal about the potential endocrine disruption effects of pesticide active ingredients because our products have been so thoroughly tested in the normal registration process that EPA has applied to our chemicals for many years.

DH: But what they're currently looking at would require you to do more testing for endocrine disruption than you're currently doing.

JV: That potentially is true although it's not been determined yet. The advisory committee that was created by EPA to get very thorough scientific analysis and input to the agency's development of the endocrine testing and screening protocols that the EPA would put into effect is still meeting. They are required to finish up their work in late Spring, early Summer, and then that advice will go into the agency's regulatory process and the agency is required by August of 1998 to provide a report to Congress on exactly how they are proceeding with regard to implementation of those provisions of the new law. So we don't know that yet. My best guess is that our industry's testing and our industry's products will be affected very little by the ultimate outcome of these new provisions of analyzing chemistry for endocrine disruption because we've been testing for these kinds of effects for years and we know more than almost any other product in society about the potential effects of endocrine disruption.

DH: We have an e-mail of a memo written by industry wildlife biologists, who started looking at this issue of endocrine disruption early on to determine what potential problems there were. One of the things they do say is that "current EPA required laboratory studies generally do not provide sufficient information to evaluate whether a chemical may cause such effect." So your own industry biologists are saying that you don't test for these issues. They were concerned about the wildlife effects that they had seen and that there are potential effects at endpoints that we're not currently looking at.

JV: In terms of wildlife exposures, that's correct.

DH: Dawn Forsythe says that the industry doesn't go looking for problems. It does only what the EPA has mandated, and that this group of wildlife biologists never came out with a final report. They stopped.

JV: I think that the work that was probably underway that underpinned that memo did probably get put on hold since the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Food Quality Protection Act was passed just after that memo was written. And until the industry could know what the government would do with the new requirements of those two laws, it probably made little sense for the industry to continue investing resources in a direction and under certain scientific protocols that might be changed given the implementation of the new law that was uncertain at that point in time.

DH: You didn't want to go looking for trouble.

JV: First of all, let me point out to you that there's a provision in federal law that has been on the books for twenty or thirty years in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, which is the primary statutory authority that the EPA uses to register pesticides. Section 682 of that law requires the industry to report all unreasonable adverse effects from the use of pesticides. So we don't have any choice but to report any effects that come forward to any industry registrant about their registered pesticides and pass that information along to the EPA no matter what we think about it. So we have no choice but to look for and report information.

DH: But you're not required to look for it if it's not asked for. But if you find it on your own, you then have to report it.

JV: Right.

DH: As Dawn Forsythe said, you don't go looking for it.

JV: I'm not sure if that's an accurate representation of our industry's commitment to safety and stewardship of our products. And I would disagree with that observation.

DH: Do you know Dawn Forsythe?

JV: I do.

DH: What do you think of her?

JV: I think she is an intelligent and committed individual who sees some issues differently than I do.

DH: Did she do good work for the pesticide industry when she was there?

JV: She did.

DH: Then why do you think she's had a change of heart and is now speaking out against the pesticide industry?

JV: She has a different point of view. That's a simple fact of life and reasonable people have an opportunity from time to time to see things differently and disagree.

DH: And, just finally, the one thing that I want you to impress upon me is the benefits that your companies bring us. I think what often gets overlooked is, in this debate, it's easy to say "get rid of pesticides, they're just a potential problem."

JV: Right.

DH: At the same time, people aren't ready to give up certain benefits.

JV: Right.

DH: So tell me, for somebody who says, "just get rid of these potential problems--pesticides." What do you say to them?

JV: Well I would say it's very simple. And I have a personal experience that relates to a rural area. I grew up on a family farm in north central Illinois. In the 46 years that I've been alive and on this earth, American agriculture has more than doubled the total production of fruits, vegetables, grains, oil seeds, fiber, while using 75 percent less labor on farms to produce that expansion in productivity. And it's enabled me to be able to leave farming as a way of life and work in cities. Obviously I work in an agriculturally-related endeavor. But there are just millions and millions of us in this society who don't work in manual labor or in farm production because we have technology that enables us to grow a lot more food on somewhat less land than forty or fifty years ago and have a much wider variety of food, and higher quality food, available to us. And I think that most of us don't understand what it means not to have to be engaged in the production of food and fiber on the farm level. And pesticides are a very important part of the technology that American farmers use to produce this bounty.

There are risks associated with the use of any technology. I think we all know and recognize that. We need to manage those risks. But the benefits are phenomenal. Over half of the United States cotton crop is made possible because of modern insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Probably in excess of 30 percent of the American corn crop is made possible because of the use of modern pesticides. So the examples go on and on with regard to almost every crop that American farmers produce, using less labor and producing a higher-quality output. Pesticides are an important component of that overall strategy. However, they're changing every day as my industry invests new biotechnology solutions to protect crops. We're seeing cases where the use of insecticides is going down as we're able to bioengineer crops that have their own inherent resistance to insects. So we can displace the use of some synthetic insecticides using the evolution and advancement of technology. So I'm excited about the future of the benefits that my industry can bring to society using an ever-changing mix of technologies and I'm optimistic about the future. And I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about some benefits that our products provide to mankind.

DH: It's hard to get people convinced of that. And when you talk about weighing the benefits, you have to make them explicit, but then it's also hard to weigh the risks when they invoke human health. How do you balance the economic benefits up against potential health risks?

JV: I think it's simple. I'm convinced that the use of registered pesticides at or below the label rates that are established by regulation by EPA results in no human risk, and that we are able to use these products in a way that minimizes or eliminates risk. So the benefits are out there that speak for themselves. We have to be careful about using these products in a way that follows the label directions and that is true for farmers and any of the rest of us who may use pesticides at any given time.

DH: So one of the things that's very scary about this is you've said that you have absolutely no doubt that they're safe at the levels that we've tested for and the endpoints that we've looked for.

JV: Right.

DH: But now some people, some scientists, are coming along saying there are a whole series of things we've never looked for.

JV: Well, I think we have looked for them. The questions are have we looked widely enough and, and have we exhausted all the resources that are available to ask all the questions and answer all the questions. And it applies not just to pesticides but all chemicals, naturally occurring and synthetically manufactured, that are exposed to us in our environment. So we will never stop asking tough scientific questions and that's part of what our commitment to science is all about. And in particular with regard to producing abundant and healthy food and fiber, America's agriculture leads the way in terms of developing science, employing science, and then challenging science. I'm comfortable and confident that we're going to continue to do that in a way that continues to assure the American public of a safe and adequate food supply.

DH: And you've heard nothing in the scientific evidence that would lead you to believe that the American food supply is not safe?

JV: No.

 

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