Reacting to the recent public alarm over a chemical used on apples, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved a draft legislative proposal that would make it easier to pull potentially hazardous pesticides off the market.
The proposal, which is expected to be reviewed by President Bush's Domestic Policy Council within the next two weeks, would allow the agency to suspend use of a pesticide suspected of harming health even if there is not enough evidence to warrant an immediate ban.
During the uproar earlier this year over Alar, a growth regulator used on apples, the EPA was derided by consumer and environmental groups for announcing its intention to ban the chemical while defending its continued use for 17 months pending completion of a study. After plummeting apple sales, Alar was withdrawn from the U.S. market last month by its manufacturer, Uniroyal Chemical Co.
"Allowing continued use of pesticide products for years after significant health risks are identified results in loss of public confidence in the government's ability to protect health," the EPA wrote in a July 18 internal report titled "Highlights of EPA's Draft Legislative Proposals."
Agency officials fear that unless the law is changed, there will be another public outcry over yet another pesticide and the EPA again will be unable to act. "Alar is not an isolated case," the internal report said. " . . . EPA will be reviewing massive amounts of new testing data on old pesticide products, and some of the results will inevitably indicate risks."
The proposal is now being discussed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture. A congressional source familiar with the negotiations said the FDA wants an even stronger bill, while the USDA has pushed for a weaker one. Agency and congressional officials predicted a 50% to 70% chance that the EPA's proposals, or a bill containing similar regulations, will be sent to Congress and approved.
"There really is a changed dynamic to this whole debate," said Skip Stiles, staff director of the House Agriculture Committee's subcommittee on operations, research and foreign agriculture. "Last year, I would have said no, (such a bill would not be approved.) After Alar, maybe. The public is going to continue to call for some regulation, and I think a lot of people are feeling that pressure."
The proposal would cut in half the amount of time it takes the agency to ban a pesticide and would require more extensive record keeping by pesticide users and makers. It also would permit pesticides that pose more than a "negligible risk" to remain on the market only under certain conditions.
The most contentious elements of the proposal, however, are provisions that relax the conditions under which the EPA could suspend use of various pesticides pending a formal ban. The agency's proposal would allow for temporary withdrawal of a pesticide if there was "significant evidence of risk to human health" and if the removal would not cause "substantial dislocations" to the nation's food supply or agricultural economy. The EPA would also have to consider the availability of alternative pesticides and pest control methods.
'Imminent Hazard' Rule
Currently, the EPA cannot suspend a product unless it poses an "imminent hazard" to the public. The agency must also consider the economic benefits of the product.
Using that standard, agency officials decided last winter that they could not suspend Alar even though an interim study showed that the chemical could cause cancer. Under the new proposal, Alar would have been removed, agency officials said Thursday.
Not surprisingly, farm groups oppose giving the EPA the wider authority. Mark Maslyn, assistant director of government affairs for the Washington-based American Farm Bureau Federation, said such suspension powers would put pressure on the agency to shelve a product "every time somebody raises a question." Moreover, a suspension would doom a pesticide even if the pending study found it to be safe, he said.
"I think it would be difficult for the EPA, once having put a product in purgatory, in a black box on a shelf . . . to bring it back," Maslyn said. "It will be tainted and tarnished, and retailers and food processors will tell growers they aren't going to take a chance."
In California, farmers already face strict regulation from the state. State authorities, for example, at times have restricted pesticides in California before the EPA has taken action nationally.
But Merlin Fagan, director of environmental affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the EPA proposal would "create another substantial uncertainty that could be very costly" to California growers.
"If all of a sudden government can say that they can begin to withdraw pesticides and those pesticides have already been used, that crop may not be marketable and that creates a new, serious uncertainty that would be tough to deal with," Fagan said. " . . . It's clear to us that it can cause a lot of disruption in California, not only among California growers, but it can reduce crops available to California consumers."
But Jay Feldman, national coordinator of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, predicted that the EPA's proposals would simply lead to more restrictions on a chemical's use, not more outright suspensions.
"Given the risk standards the agency has traditionally used, most of the action, I would predict, will not be wholesale prohibitions or bans but restrictions on uses to certain crops, to certain rates of application," he said.
Feldman said he is optimistic that the proposals will be sent to Congress and approved. "I don't think the President will have much choice in light of the high level of public concern," he said.