The good news is that federal agencies are finally amassing basic data on the health effects of some widely used pesticides. The bad news is that the current federal pesticide law virtually guarantees that even the most dangerous pesticides will remain on the market.
According to a recent grocery retailers' survey, 96% of Americans believe that pesticide residues in foods are a hazard. Such suspicions were confirmed this spring by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, which reported that cancer-causing pesticides are used extensively on even basic foods like tomatoes, apples and potatoes.
The NAS study shows that lifetime cancer risks from dietary exposure to only 28 pesticides could be as high as 5.8 cancer cases in 1,000 exposed people. The academy noted that for many of the carcinogenic pesticides, substitutes are available that do not cause cancer.
One might have expected a swift response from the federal agency charged with regulating pesticides, the Environmental Protection Agency. But that has not happened. Not one of the 28 carcinogenic pesticides has been eliminated from the American food supply. The culprit is the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, which perversely hinders the immediate removal of any pesticide--no matter how dangerous--that is now on the market and in your groceries.
Included in the pesticide law are two obscure provisions that exist for no reason other than to compensate producers of the most hazardous pesticides for regulatory action. These provisions, which are slowly gaining notoriety on Capitol Hill, are referred to as "indemnification" and "disposal." The indemnification provision says that if EPA finds a pesticide too risky to be used or sold, EPA has to pay the pesticide maker the retail value of all existing stocks. The disposal provision requires that EPA accept banned pesticides for storage and disposal at the expense of the taxpayers.
No other law promises federal funds to companies that manufacture extraordinarily dangerous products. Even such politically weighty industries as automobile and pharmaceutical manufacturers must absorb the costs of their mistakes and recall defective products with no governmental assistance.
Pesticide indemnification and disposal obligations pervert incentives for companies to develop safer pesticides or to withdraw agricultural chemicals as soon as hazards are identified. Indeed, the provisions might motivate unscrupulous pesticide makers to step up production when incriminating health data emerge in order to further discourage EPA suspension of their product. Even worse, these requirements effectively eviscerate EPA's power to halt the use and sale of pesticides that are found to pose grave risks.
Both of these provisions mean big money to pesticide manufacturers. At the request of a Senate appropriations subcommittee, EPA recently estimated costs of indemnities for seven widely used, high-risk pesticides. If EPA immediately removed only these seven from the market, the action would cost more than $400 million. These funds would have to be diverted out of EPA's Office of Pesticide Program annual budget of only $40 million.
The EPA estimated indemnity costs of $161.5 million for alachlor, a widely used corn and soybean herbicide that the NAS report identified as posing a significant carcinogenic risk; for benomyl, a carcinogenic fungicide used extensively on fruit, the cost could run to $78 million. EPA expects disposal of banned pesticides to be at least as expensive as indemnification.
Unless the federal pesticide law is reformed, EPA's pesticide budget will be strained beyond the breaking point, and objective judgments concerning regulatory matters will be jeopardized. With hundreds of old pesticides in desperate need of assessment for their potential to cause cancer, birth defects, neurological disorders and other disastrous effects, EPA simply cannot afford an insurance program for pesticide makers.
If the skimpy pesticide budget is handed over to pesticide companies that make bad products instead of being spent to improve the regulation of pesticides, Americans will continue to consume pesticides in their food and water.
There are some solutions, but they are not of the glamorous variety that appeal to most politicians. Congress needs to eliminate the pesticide law's indemnification and disposal requirements. Congress should provide EPA with an effective pesticide-recall authority and sufficient resources to carry out its other charges under the law. No congressional action deserves to be called pesticide reform absent these crucial amendments.