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Pesticide War Cease-Fire : EPA agreement could open door to key legislative reform

October 16, 1994

When Congress passed it 36 years ago, the Delaney clause of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act seemed a good way to protect foods from carcinogens. It imposed a very strict standard, prohibiting in processed foods even the smallest trace of any pesticide believed to cause cancer, no matter how tiny the risk.

But today the law is outdated. It fails to address possible nerve damage and reproductive disorders caused by pesticides, imposes an impossibly strict standard on carcinogens and does not affect fresh foods. And it applies differently when it comes to food additives and colorings. Clearly the federal patchwork of food safety laws needs a thorough updating and overhaul. However, bills to do that have been frozen in Congress because it has been impossible for environmental groups to compromise with the agricultural and chemical industries.

We now have reason to unclog the logjam. Last Wednesday the Environmental Protection Agency reached agreement with the Natural Resources Defense Council and unions representing farm workers to enforce a strict interpretation of Delaney, using zero risk rather an "negligible" risk. That could affect up to 85 pesticides, probably banning 36 chemicals within two years.

The agreement allows for the orderly phasing out of the most toxic pesticides, and further testing of others. No massive disruption of farming or food supplies is expected.

This offers a valuable pause in the pesticide wars. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) has proposed eliminating the Delaney clause in exchange for a single health standard for pesticides, food additives and colorings. A competing industry bill would also terminate Delaney but would balance the health risks of pesticides against their economic benefits in crop yields.

If nothing else, all sides agree that last week's EPA action may finally precipitate action in Congress. We are not now taking sides on the question. But when the new Congress convenes in January, it should resolve this overdue issue, using the latest medical, scientific and economic data.

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