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Home-Chemicals Business Puts Pesticide Bill at Risk

June 01, 1986|ALBERT H. MEYERHOFF and NANCY DRABBLE | Albert H. Meyerhoff is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. Nancy Drabble is director of Public Citizen's Congresswatch.

As summer approaches, millions of people are using pesticides on their lawns and gardens as well as in their homes. Meanwhile, Congress is considering whether to overhaul the nation's weak and archaic pesticide law.

Reform legislation is pending that has the full support of more than 90 farm chemical companies--including such industry leaders as Monsanto, Du Pont, Union Carbide, Shell, Ciba-Geigy and Eli Lily; it has the blessing of the American Farm Bureau, which has more than 3 million members, and it is supported by more than 40 major environmental, labor and consumer organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Citizen and the AFL-CIO.

Yet the bill may not pass.

A special-interest group--the folks who make home-use chemicals, such as disinfectants and insecticides--is opposed to the reform legislation. Working through a trade group known as the Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Assn., on behalf of companies such as Sterling Drug and Proctor & Gamble, the home chemical industry is doing its best to block or vitiate this legislation.

The manufacturers are particularly unenthusiastic about the bill's central requirement: full testing of home and garden pesticides for possible health hazards, such as cancer, birth defects, nerve damage or genetic mutations.

Indeed, the industry would prefer to weaken the current law. It is backing amendments that would preempt state authority to regulate pesticides in food and prevent local jurisdictions from controlling their products through ordinances, such as requiring the posting of signs before application of lawn chemicals.

The industry has hired a former member of Congress and a flock of other high-powered Washington lobbyists to derail the bill. If they succeed, much will be lost.

Against all odds, an unprecedented consensus has been reached between environmentalists, labor, the farm chemical industry and the agricultural community on a major piece of environmental legislation. For more than a year, these groups negotiated on a host of changes to the federal pesticide statute--a law that proved to be a woeful failure at protecting public health.

In March environmentalists and the farm chemical industry reached an agreement on 14 major amendments to improve the safety of pesticides. In May a compromise, which included better training of those who apply pesticides and increased protection of farm workers, was forged with the American Farm Bureau.

These agreements are now part of bipartisan legislation that would, among other things: require complete health and safety testing of all pesticides within eight years; ensure better protection of drinking water; give communities the right to know about the dangers of pesticides produced in their neighborhoods; prevent the importation of food containing residues of banned pesticides, and streamline procedures to get dangerous pesticides off the market.

That such historical antagonists as environmentalists, farmers and the pesticide industry have reached agreement represents a test of good faith by all concerned. Such opportunities are rare. Thus it is particularly unfortunate that the home chemicals industry, with $1.9 billion in sales in 1984, is trying to obstruct this process. Some of their household products may be time bombs on our kitchen shelves.

A report released last week by the General Accounting Office found that the non-agricultural pesticide industry often makes product safety claims that are false or misleading, without being penalized by the Environmental Protection Agency. The GAO also found that the risks of chronic health problems resulting from exposure to these products are uncertain since most have not been fully tested.

Some household products that have been tested provide serious reason for concern. Pentachlorophenol, an over-the-counter home wood preservant used in playgrounds and millions of homes, has been linked to birth defects. Captan, a commonly used garden chemical, also is found in shampoos, cosmetics and mattresses; a near relative of thalidomide, it is linked to cancer, birth defects and genetic mutations. Other highly toxic products, such as chlordane, have been banned from agricultural use but still are sold to consumers in half gallon cans--without restriction. The American Assn. of Poison Control Centers has estimated that in one year, more than 250,000 suffer from pesticide poisoning.

This month members of the House and Senate agriculture committees will be voting on the pesticide reform legislation (S 2215 and H.R. 2482). In November, the entire House and one-third of the Senate will be up for reelection. If pesticide regulation is ever to be improved, the public must send a strong message to its representatives in Washington that further inaction is no longer acceptable. Enactment of pesticide reform legislation is necessary--now.

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