Protecting Children from Pesticides: The EPA Needs to Get Back to Work
Posted March 24, 2010
Last week, the Senate held a hearing on children's environmental health, and I was invited to testify. At the same time, the Government Accountability Office released a report concluding that the EPA is not doing enough to protect children's health. I focused part of my testimony on pesticides, since EPA is required by law to protect children from pesticide residues.
Congress recognized the overwhelming scientific evidence of children’s susceptibility by writing child-protective language into the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), which passed both Houses of Congress unanimously in 1996. Through the FQPA, Congress required EPA to review the safety of all pesticides used on food crops, and, for the first time in any environmental law, specifically ordered EPA to assure the safety of infants and children. Specifically, pesticide tolerances (for allowable residue levels on food) must ensure to a reasonable certainty that “no harm will result to infants and children from aggregate exposure. . .”
One of the FQPA’s most important provisions is that it requires EPA to use an additional ten-fold margin in risk assessments to protect infants and children. EPA must maintain this additional margin to “take into account potential pre– and post–natal developmental toxicity and completeness of the data with respect to exposure and toxicity to infants and children.” EPA can depart from this requirement and use a different margin “only if, on the basis of reliable data, such margin will be safe for infants and children.”
In ensuring that pesticide residues are safe for infants and children, EPA must base its decision on information about: “food consumption patterns unique to infants and children;” “special susceptibility of infants and children to pesticide chemical residues, including neurological differences between infants and children and adults, and effects of in utero exposure;” and the “cumulative effects on infants and children of [pesticides] that have a common mechanism of toxicity.” By definition, if there are no data or significant gaps in data, there cannot be “reliable data” sufficient to overturn the presumption of an additional ten-fold margin to protect infants and children.
This approach would seem to be a model for how to assure children are protected from toxic chemicals in their food. But there are two important problems.
The first problem is that Congress left the job half-done in 1996. It was important to take steps to require that children be protected from pesticides, but there are many thousands of non-pesticide chemicals that contaminate food, water, air, and consumer products. To this day, there is no legal requirement that EPA take any additional steps to assure that children are protected from these industrial chemicals. Chemicals that are known to disproportionately affect fetuses, infants, or children, such as bisphenol A, phthalates, brominated flame retardants, TCE, and even arsenic remain in a limbo where there is no clear directive to protect children’s health. Accordingly, EPA actions to date on these chemicals have failed to adequately protect children.
The second problem is that EPA has honored the child-protective language in the FQPA in the breach. In 2006, an NAS committee, on which I served, reviewed EPA pesticide assessments. The committee reported that out of the 59 pesticides with assessments posted on EPA’s website, EPA failed to apply a child-protective factor for 48 chemicals. For five pesticides, the agency applied the full factor of 10 for at least one exposure group and exposure circumstance, such as acute dietary exposure of women of childbearing age. For six pesticides, EPA reduced the factor to 3. In the five cases where the full child factor of 10 was applied, severe developmental toxicity end points, such as multiple malformations and fetal death, were observed in laboratory animals. An updated NRDC analysis focusing on pesticide assessments completed in the past three years found that among 14 recent food-use pesticide assessments, only 2 incorporated the full child-protective factor. Thus there has been little improvement in recent years.
EPA should review the assessments on priority pesticides, especially the highly toxic organophosphate and carbamate pesticides, to make sure that children are protected. Current regulation may be leaving potentially dangerous chemical residues on food, where they could harm infants and children.
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