Paralysis on Public Health

Last week Velsicol Co. and the federal Environmental Protection Agency agreed to suspend the further sale and production of the widely used but extremely hazardous pesticide chlordane. This is an important step toward protecting the public from a toxic chemical.

The EPA would have done a more thorough job, however, if it had also recalled and disposed of an estimated two-month retail supply of chlordane--an action that it did not take. The EPA's refusal to pull chlordane off the shelves is an example of a regulatory flaw that renders the agency incapable of dealing effectively with a clearly dangerous pesticide. That this "regulatory" action was reached by agreement, and not by EPA mandate, shows how easily EPA efforts to suspend pesticides are stymied. Most unfortunately, the EPA's paralysis on chlordane epitomizes the inherent breakdowns in pesticide regulation overall.

The EPA will not remove and destroy existing chlordane stocks because current law requires the agency to pay, from its own budget, the costs of the recall--estimated at $50 million to $60 million. Pesticide companies were able to slip this protective clause into federal legislation under the sympathetic gaze of the congressional agriculture committees. The House and Senate Health and Environment committees, groups more attentive to environmental concerns, customarily regulate potentially hazardous chemicals. All legislation governing pesticides clearly belongs in those committees.

To avoid compensating Velsicol for the unused chlordane, the EPA is forced to deny abundant testimony that directly links chlordane to numerous health problems, even when the chemical is used according to instructions. Sadly, this tactic is only one symptom of the many bureaucratic obstacles that cripple the EPA's regulatory effort. Other provisions of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act allow chemical companies to challenge pesticide cancellations, deflecting all regulatory action into a protracted legal battle. The law also sacrifices public health for efficacy by weighing the safety of a pesticide against its economic efficiency. In other words, the EPA tolerates a certain level of toxicity in a pesticide, provided that the chemical is economically advantageous. According to the EPA, all pesticides carry harmful side effects, and, to select from among them and to regulate them, one must necessarily weigh their various risks and benefits. As the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides asserts, such a trade-off is unthinkable in most toxic-chemical legislation, and should be stricken from pesticide regulation.

Congress has before it several examples of better environmental-protection laws: the Clean Water Act, the Clear Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Congress also has, in its coming session, the opportunity to reform and to strengthen the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. Congress must put enough teeth into chemical regulations so that corporations can no longer deflect and escape regulatory action. And the Environmental Protection Agency should no longer have to negotiate and compromise the public health.

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