Air Date: Week of August 2, 1996
Carol Browner takes questions from Steve Curwood about brand new federal laws that will alter which pesticides are used or banned nationwide. The E.P.A. (Environmental Protection Agency) will study all kinds of health risks in determining which pesticides may be used, which updates the regulations that have been in use since the 1950's.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The United States likes to boast that it has one of the safest food supplies in the world. But in recent years there's been growing evidence that residues from some pesticides may be threatening our health. Now a new Federal law is likely to result in the banning of a number of these pesticides, and both environmental and agricultural groups are saying they're largely pleased. Thirty years ago Congress imposed a strict ban on even the tiniest amount of chemicals known to cause cancer in processed food, but it exempted fresh foods. Also, there was no law against pesticide residues that may cause subtle birth defects or harm our reproductive, neurological, or immune systems. And there was no consideration given to the special vulnerability of children to pesticides. That's all been changed. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner says the new law brings the nation's 1950s food regulations up to date.
BROWNER: First of all, you'll see certain pesticides come off the market, their use restricted. You'll see safer alternatives: integrated pest management, alternatives to chemicals, getting a greater opportunity, greater availability. making food much safer, for the American public.
CURWOOD: So what's coming off the market? Some of those old 1950s and 60s style pesticides like captan or parathon?
BROWNER: We don't know specifically yet which chemicals will come off. What we do know is that for the first time ever, we will not only look at the cancer risks created by a particular pesticide and herbicide or fungicide. We'll also be looking at reproductive effects, neurological effects, effects on the immune system, birth defects. For the first time ever we will look at all risks. We will look at all foods, not just the canned or the frozen foods that the current law focuses our attention on. And we will be required -- this is something I personally sought in the law -- we will be required to make an explicit finding, an explicit determination, that our children will be protected.
CURWOOD: Now, this law requires you to review all existing pesticides and I think -- what, there are some 600 chemicals that are being used? -- in the next decade.
CURWOOD: And you're going to have to determine whether or not it causes cancer or endocrine problems or any other health risk. Does the Environmental Protection Agency have the money to do this?
BROWNER: There's included in the law, there is an increase in fees that will be collected to fund this work.
CURWOOD: Is it enough? Is it enough? I mean, this sounds like you're going to spend, to review 600 chemicals intensively on these various health risks from their effect on children to whether or not they can cause neurological damage, sounds like a lot of money.
BROWNER: It's a lot of work but it's something that we believe is absolutely essential. It's something we're committed to. We've been very clear with people. If we believe we need additional resources we will be back to Congress.
CURWOOD: Okay. Now, I'm wondering about the science here. It's really just emerging. For example, some scientists based at Tulane University recently reported that when you combine certain chemicals, and some of these are agricultural chemicals, they can become 100 to 1,000, even 16,000 times more poisonous than they are as individuals.
BROWNER: As you point out, this is an emerging area of science. But we are given the ability to look at synergistic effects. Again, to look at what's actually on the dinner plate of the American people-- what are the food combinations that we commonly eat. And when you look at those food combinations, what are the chemical exposures? What are the health risks? And to set a standard based on those combinations. It's not something we've ever been able to do before.
CURWOOD: If a company can show that restricting its pesticide would lead to a disruption in the food supply, then under this new law they can apply for and get a special status where a firm won't have to meet your basic one in a million safety level, the cancer level.
BROWNER: Well, EPA has the discretion to make the decision. The firm can obviously argue their case, but at the end of the day the agency responsible for public health and environmental protection in this country makes the decision.
CURWOOD: How many exemptions like this do you think you're going to have to make?
BROWNER: This is a new provision. It has not existed previously. I think it's hard to know at this point in time. I can tell you as the mother of a young child, I will certainly follow the requirements of the law that we err on the side of protecting our children very rigorously.
CURWOOD: Tell me about the new Right-to-Know provision. What labeling is going to be required on fruits and vegetables? I pick up my tomato, will it tell me the pesticide that's been used on it?
BROWNER: Well, when you go to the store, there will be available to you, probably in the form of a brochure, perhaps a pamphlet, information about what chemicals may have been used, what that means. What you can do to further reduce risks. We were also successful in ensuring that any state program could continue. This doesn't pre-empt those programs; they have to come and get some approval from us at EPA, but they're allowed to continue with those kind of programs.
CURWOOD: One criticism of the new law is that it limits states from imposing stricter standards on the actual use of pesticides.
BROWNER: It doesn't limit them. It creates just an approval mechanism. There were some quite -- there were many, and many in the chemical industry and the pesticide manufacturing industry, that argued for an absolute pre-emption of any state activities, and that's not something that we supported. In fact, we opposed it, and were able to prevail. And so states do retain their authorities to set if they feel the need to [set] a different, more stringent standard. There's an approval process, but they have the authority.
CURWOOD: I would think as a result of this law, we're going to see a number of pesticides banned. Why then do you think that the agriculture industry is so supportive?
BROWNER: I think it's important to distinguish between the farmer who we work very closely with, and the chemical or pesticide manufacturers.
BROWNER: And I think the farmers need the certainty and the predictability which this provides them.
CURWOOD: And the manufacturers?
BROWNER: And they have been very supportive.
CURWOOD: Okay, how about the manufacturers? Are they as supportive?
BROWNER: [Laughs] I think there are some, quite frankly, who have been able to develop safer alternatives, who are very interested in the fact that this law will allow them to sort of get a bump up in the registration process. There' s a preference created in terms of how we manage things in the process for what we refer to as safer alternatives. For those who are still making your basic 1950s chemical or pesticide, they may not be as happy.
CURWOOD: Does the enactment of a new food quality protection law mean that right now on the market we have some unsafe foods?
BROWNER: I don't think that we should be concerned that there are unsafe foods on the market. I think that it is important with all public health and environmental laws to constantly take advantage of the new science, to address emerging problems, to prevent problems. And this particular law being 30 some years old was very narrowly drawn. It was about processed foods, it was about cancer, important obviously, but not the full picture. And now we have the full picture.
CURWOOD: Carol Browner heads the US Environmental Protection Agency. She spoke to us from Tallahassee, Florida.
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