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'Horror stories': Groups urge EPA to revamp pesticides work


BY: E.A. CRUNDEN | 10/26/2021 01:36 PM EDT 

GREENWIRE | A coalition of advocacy groups are panning EPA's pesticides work and calling on the agency to adopt a number of reforms geared toward bolstering science and minimizing industry input.

In a letter sent today, 37 organizations asked the Biden administration and key officials managing EPA's pesticides efforts to "to re-think its application of current standards in law to meet the crises of the day" posed by chemicals.

Led by Beyond Pesticides and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the broader coalition includes environmental, public health and sustainable agriculture groups. They note that EPA has registered more than 18,000 separate pesticide products and that more than 2 billion pounds of pesticides are sold annually in the United States — all despite significant concerns over the pesticide approval process.

"We know that toxic pesticide use in the United States is widespread," the groups wrote, adding that "in recent decades the Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) has made a series of crucial regulatory mistakes" resulting in severe impacts. Those include human deaths and diseases with disproportionate implications for people of color, as well as deep harm to animals and contributions to the climate crisis.

Such failures are not inevitable, the groups argued, as EPA has powerful statutes at its disposal that can be used to crack down on pesticides. But they maintained OPP has undermined both the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Recipients of the letter include President Biden, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, EPA chemicals chief Michal Freedhoff, and Ya-Wei (Jake) Li, Office of Pesticide Programs deputy assistant administrator.

Citing reporting from The Intercept, the letter argued that managers within OPP have pushed through "yes packages" that essentially allow for more speedy pesticide approvals in the face of industry lobbying. Meanwhile, concerns over toxicity study requirements raised by career staff have gone ignored, they alleged, and office managers have viewed waiving toxicity study requirements as celebrations. Documents show OPP threw a party when 1,000 such waivers were handed out.

Other issues raised in the letter include a "revolving door" trend that has seen regulatory officials exit the Office of Pesticide Programs and head to industry jobs, and undermining compliance with the Endangered Species Act. That statute requires proposed registrants to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries about possible impacts.

"An urgent need exists for OPP to re-think its application of current standards in law to meet the crises of the day," the letter asserted.

The groups asked EPA to use its powers under FIFRA to more closely scrutinize pesticides, taking into account their chemical mixture and what the public is exposed to. They also pushed the agency to conduct an analysis into less toxic alternatives, cancel registrations based on fraudulent data and look more closely at pesticides that disrupt the endocrine system.

Separately echoing the recommendations, PEER senior counsel Peter Jenkins asserted that OPP "has bent so far over backwards to accommodate industry desires that it is now beyond chiropractic help" and that "major surgery is required" to fix its current problems.

He was joined by Beyond Pesticides Executive Director Jay Feldman, who in a statement called on EPA to swiftly cancel registrations for the most controversial pesticides.

“Horror stories have piled up for too long and Americans no longer are safe from the very agency charged with protecting them," said Feldman.

In addition to their requests, the groups noted a number of instances where oversight has seemingly fallen through the cracks.

While some controversies played out under former President Trump's administration, others have occurred during various administrations. One of the most controversial is OPP's decision to allow the neurotoxic chlorpyrifos to stay registered for years after exposed farmworkers and health experts alike asked the agency to address the insecticide's documented hazards. EPA said in August it would ban food use of chlorpyrifos (E&E News PM, Aug. 18).

Other controversies include widespread approved use of Roundup, or glyphosate, an herbicide linked to cancer, which many advocates blame for the decline in monarch butterfly populations. More recent issues have sprung up around Seresto pet collars, which are linked to as many as 1,700 animal deaths (Greenwire, April 14). Recent lab testing has found those collars also contain 250 parts per trillion of a long-chain member of the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances family.

PFAS, the most controversial chemical crisis currently facing the Biden administration, have also proved a headache for OPP. Testing on a widely used pesticide earlier this year showed notable levels of multiple PFAS, including PFOA, which is slated for regulation by EPA (Greenwire, March 5).

In response to a request for comment, an EPA spokesperson said the chemicals office "is actively working to restore and ensure scientific integrity in all our decisions," including in its review of pesticides. The spokesperson said the agency is reviewing the letter sent today and will respond accordingly.