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Acting EPA Chief Withdraws Controversial Pesticide Project

Times Staff Writer

A controversial program to pay parents to document the effects of pesticide exposure on their children was canceled Friday by the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose confirmation to the post had been jeopardized by the study.

The decision by Stephen L. Johnson removed a parliamentary hurdle to a Senate vote on his appointment by President Bush to become EPA’s full-time administrator. Two Senate Democrats -- including Barbara Boxer of California -- had placed a hold on a confirmation vote on Johnson after he refused this week to cancel the pesticide study.

The program, which had been suspended by EPA officials late last year, would have paid low-income families in Florida $970 if they agreed to record evidence -- including videotaping -- on how pesticides used in their homes affected their children.

At Johnson’s confirmation hearing Wednesday, Boxer blasted the program and called on him to officially end it. But Johnson said he would not do so until the EPA received an independent review of the program, called the Children’s Health Environmental Exposure Research Study, or CHEERS. The results of the review are expected in May.

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Joining Boxer in blocking a vote on Johnson was Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). After Johnson’s cancellation of the pesticide study, the lawmakers said they were removing their holds on his nomination.

Johnson said Friday that he concluded the study could not proceed because of “gross misrepresentations and controversy.”

His spokesman, Rich Hood, said: “There was a rather nasty explosion because of the way it was portrayed. This would not have exposed children to any additional pesticides. It was merely to measure the ones already exposed.

Hood added: “Researchers thought it was necessary because there are critical data gaps in our understanding of how pesticides enter the body -- through the skin or ingested or inhaled.”

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Boxer said she was pleased Johnson had “recognized the gross error in judgment the EPA made when [it] concocted this immoral program to test pesticides on children.”

The study was “a reprehensible idea that never should have made it out of the boardroom,” Boxer said, “and I am just happy that it was stopped before any children were put in harm’s way.”

The senator added that she had not decided whether to support Johnson’s confirmation, which was pending before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“She is concerned over the larger philosophy behind the program,” said David Sandretti, Boxer’s spokesman. “This could be the tip of the iceberg in terms of human testing.”

Johnson has been EPA’s acting administrator for several months and was nominated in March by Bush to be its full-time chief. A biologist and pathologist, Johnson is a 24-year veteran of the EPA and would be the first scientist to head it. His nomination drew praise from Republicans, Democrats, industry officials and many environmentalists and, until the flap over the pesticide program, his confirmation seemed assured.

The EPA started accepting applications for the program last year and said the study would not pose additional risks because it would only accept families already using pesticides.

But the agency suspended the study in November after outcries from various groups, including the Alliance for Human Research Protection in New York. The project came under more criticism when it was disclosed that the American Chemistry Council had paid $2 million toward the $9-million study.

“We are gratified that when this abominable experiment was exposed to the public, the pesticide industry and its EPA advocates had to surrender,” said Vera Sharav, president of the Alliance for Human Research Protection.

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