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Pesticide regulations changed, but for better or worse?

Consumers soon will have an easier time finding out what pesticides were used on the fresh fruits and vegetables they buy at the grocery store.

But critics of a new federal law say the public won't be any safer.

In August, President Clinton signed the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, which revamped the regulation of pesticides on food. Many observers believe the law will please environmentalists, chemical manufacturers, and farmers alike. But a coalition of about 50 consumer and environmental advocacy groups criticized its deficiencies.

The act effectively repeals the 38-year-old Delaney Clause, which outlawed the presence of even small traces of cancer-causing pesticides on processed food. The Food Quality Protection Act replaces Delaney's "zero tolerance" carcinogen requirement with a single regulatory standard for pesticides on all food-raw and processed. That standard allows the presence of low levels of pesticide residue on food.

Michael Block, a Joliet, Illinois, attorney who chairs ATLA's Pesticide Litigation Group, argued there can be "no safe level" of carcinogens on food.

"If a pesticide can cause cancer, it can do so at any dose," Block said. "Science has never proven the contrary. Congress has decided it's willing to take a risk with our children without really knowing what the risk is."

The new law includes provisions that

* permit the sale of foods that carry pesticide residue as long as that residue poses a "reasonable certainty of no harm" to consumers;

* require manufacturers to show their products are safe for infants and children, the most at-risk group for pesticide exposure; and

* expands EPA's authority to determine whether chemicals used on food cause neurological and reproductive problems or birth defects. The Delaney Clause addressed only carcinogenic threats.

The National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP) criticized the act not as much for what it attempts to do but for what it will not do. The group, which represents grassroots environmental, public health, and consumer organizations, said the law

* will not let states adopt food safety standards that are tougher than the federal government's except where EPA finds higher state standards are "justified by compelling local conditions";

* offers no specific protection to workers, such as farmers and pest control operators, who are exposed to pesticides as part of their jobs;

* does not take into account the potentially high-risk effects of mixing several chemical pesticides or ad&g chemicals to a single pesticide; and

* allows for a doubling of risk by making an exception to the standard. NCAMP noted that under the law a harmful pesticide can still be deemed acceptable if "it can be shown that restricting the pesticide will cause 'significant disruption to domestic production of an adequate, wholesome, and economical food supply."'

Some environmentalists, however, view the new law as a boon in the name of both public health and politics. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), for example, hailed the act as "a major environmental bill that promises to protect the public from the most hazardous agricultural chemicals."

"We're witnessing Mission Impossible--a good environmental law passed by this [Republican] Congress," said Al Meyerhoff, a senior attorney for NRDC. The food quality law and a recently passed drinking water safety act mark the first real changes to federal environmental law since the Clean Air Act of 1990--and the first significant environmental measure passed during President Clinton's administration.

Meyerhoff predicted that many pesticides originally registered with the government in the 1950s and 1960s, such as captan, benomyl, and parathion, will be scrutinized by EPA and may be taken off the market as a result of the agency's newly acquired authority to test the chemicals.

Captan is a fungicide used most often on apples, grapes, and peaches. Benomyl, also a fungicide, is used to keep disease from infesting fruit trees. Parathion is an insecticide most often used on bell peppers, broccoli, and carrots.

The food quality law was approved after nearly a decade of wrangling over Delaney. Chemical manufacturers wanted that clause scrapped, calling it scientifically insupportable and unworkable because of its "zero tolerance" provision for carcinogens.

Delaney, in fact, was rarely enforced by EPA until a few years ago when consumer advocates sued the agency. EPA settled the lawsuit, agreeing to phase out chemicals that fell short of the Delaney standard. The phase-out was to begin late this year.

U.S. Public Interest Research Group charged that the central reason the Food Quality Protection Act came to fruition was because chemical manufacturers could no longer depend on lax enforcement of Delaney. The group said the corporations stepped up their lobbying efforts and that "now Congress has not only struck this deal but has given the industry an added bonus of handcuffing [the] states' ability to protect public health."
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Association for Justice
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Brienza, Julie
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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