EPA Would Permit Pesticide Tests on Humans

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to that pesticide companies be allowed to test their products on humans. The proposal backed by chemical companies has drawn intense opposition from environmental and public health groups, as well as members of Congress.

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The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to allow pesticide companies to test their products on humans. The proposal, backed by chemical companies, has drawn intense opposition. Environmental and public health groups, members of Congress and thousands of Americans call such studies unscientific and unethical. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Shogren.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Ten years ago, Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman was concerned that pesticides could be causing serious developmental problems in kids. So he helped push a law through Congress that requires pesticide companies to prove to the EPA that their products are safe for children.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): And in order to do that, we have set a standard where they must do the tests on animals and then when the find the level that's harmful, build in an extra margin of safety so that they have to reduce the toxicity of the pesticide.

SHOGREN: To avoid that extra safety margin, the companies started to perform tests on people rather than lab animals. For example, in 1999, 60 volunteers in Nebraska were paid $460 apiece to swallow tablets laced with pesticide. Some got a placebo instead. People from both groups experienced headaches or vomiting. The companies hoped the results would persuade the EPA not to ban or restrict their products. Again, Waxman.

Rep. WAXMAN: They are trying to show that people aren't hurt if they use the people as the guinea pigs rather than guinea pigs as guinea pigs.

SHOGREN: When the tests came to light, they caused an uproar. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations put moratoriums on their use. Pesticide companies sued and won, ending the moratorium. That's when Congress stepped in. It blocked the EPA from considering the tests until it came up with strict ethical and scientific guidelines. Congress also banned tests on children and pregnant women. Jim Jones, who heads the EPA's pesticide office, says that's just what the agency proposal would do.

Mr. JIM JONES (EPA): The agency has taken a very strong stand on how these tests can be performed, and they need to meet high ethical standards, and that we're prohibiting children and pregnant women from being subjects in these tests.

SHOGREN: But critics say the proposal is full of loopholes. One would allow the EPA to consider some studies on pregnant women and children that aren't sponsored by chemical companies if they benefit public health. EPA's Jones says the data would be used only if they led to stricter regulations. But Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California says that's not good enough.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): It's either right or wrong to dose pregnant women, newborn infants or fetuses. It's either right or wrong to use information from those studies. Now the Congress has said it is wrong under all circumstances, and this rule is just basically undermining what Congress has said.

SHOGREN: But the pesticide industry says these tests can keep important products on the market. Jay Vroom, the president of CropLife America, an industry group, says with EPA's approval, the companies will keep doing them.

Mr. JAY VROOM (CropLife America): All of this amounts to an important part of the overall evaluation of products that, you know, not only can help farmers grow more and better food but that we can prevent disease and deal with lots and lots of public health challenges.

SHOGREN: The EPA is supposed to re-evaluate scores of pesticides by August. EPA's Jones says the agency has results from human tests for 12 of those chemicals. The agency threw out a few of those tests as unscientific. Jones says of the tests it will consider, most argue for allowing more pesticide use. EPA toxicologist Suzanne Wuerthele is so worried that the proposal could hurt children that she's decided to speak out against her agency.

Ms. SUZANNE WUERTHELE (EPA Toxicologist): ...learning to appreciate that children's neurobehavioral development is very sensitive to toxic chemicals.

SHOGREN: She and other EPA toxicologists persuaded their union, the American Federation of Government Employees, to take a stand against the rule. She says human tests can't remove the need for an extra safety margin.

Ms. WUERTHELE: We want to focus on protecting children. We don't want to be removing safety factors until we really understand how children's development is affected by chemicals.

SHOGREN: EPA's Jones says the agency is weighing all the comments. It plans to release a final rule by the end of January.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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