Testing Pesticides on Humans

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Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, says the Environmental Protection Agency is using human testing data when considering specific pesticides. Critics say such tests encourage practices that do not have proven scientific merit and may endanger the test subjects.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

California Senator Barbara Boxer is accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of relying on tests that she calls ethically flawed and scientifically weak in setting safe levels for pesticide use. At issue are industry experiments that intentionally dose humans with toxic pesticides. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

At a press conference yesterday in the Capitol, Senator Boxer stood next to a poster-sized photo of two college students with tubes sticking into their nostrils.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): They are breathing in chloropicrin.

SHOGREN: Chloropicrin is a fumigant that makes people sick even in small amounts.

Sen. BOXER: They were getting doses in their nose and the experiment was 12 times higher than the standard allowed in the workplace.

SHOGREN: This experiment took place in December at the University of California-San Diego. A hundred and twenty-seven students were paid $15 an hour to be exposed to the pesticide. The results were submitted to the EPA. The EPA gave Boxer the details of that experiment and 21 others, 7,000 pages in all, because she threatened to block the confirmation of EPA administrator Stephen Johnson unless she got them.

Sen. BOXER: These studies routinely violate ethical and scientific standards laid out in the Geneva Convention, the Declaration of Helsinki, the Common Rule and the National Academy of Science's recommendations on human testing. So we are facing a scandal here, in my opinion, of major proportions.

SHOGREN: In particular, she said the subjects weren't given enough information about the risks of the chemicals. She said the studies were too small to produce reliable results. Jay Vroom of CropLife, a leading industry trade group, strongly disagreed.

Mr. JAY VROOM (CropLife): Senator Boxer is taking the truth out of context and spinning it in an attempt to allow political science to trump sound science and distort good public policy in the United States.

SHOGREN: He says these experiments are essential to help keep important products available to the public.

Mr. VROOM: Many pesticides are used to control insects and fungus disease that are a public health threat. Things like the control of mosquitoes to help prevent and reduce the spread of West Nile virus are very much a public health benefit of pesticides.

SHOGREN: The EPA doesn't require the human subject tests, but companies use them to bolster their case when they're trying to keep the chemicals on the market. Again, Senator Boxer.

Sen. BOXER: And the fact that they're considering them is the big problem here, because that encourages these companies to go out and do these experiments.

SHOGREN: It's not a new controversy. The Clinton administration put a moratorium on the EPA's use of human subject tests. The Bush administration first lifted that moratorium and later put it back into place and then lifted it again after a court ruling. Now the EPA says it considers the tests on a case-by-case basis. Lynn Goldman, a Johns Hopkins University professor who used to head EPA's pesticide office, said that approach falls far short of what two panels of experts recommended.

Professor LYNN GOLDMAN (Johns Hopkins University): It has not regressed enough. We have to take very seriously the fact that if we're dosing people at levels that may be toxic--that the risks just aren't worth it.

SHOGREN: EPA's Eryn Witcher says the EPA is developing a regulation to govern the use of these tests and will issue a proposal late this summer. Earlier this spring, the House passed a yearlong moratorium on EPA's use of these human subject tests. The Senate is expected to vote on a measure later this summer.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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