Study finds EPA misses mark in pesticide prevention

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A new study published in the journal Environmental Health examined the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) risk assessments for 47 non-organophosphate pesticides since 2011, including those most commonly found on fresh fruits and vegetables, and found that the required additional tenfold safety factor was applied in only five cases.

The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA) requires the EPA to protect children's health by applying an extra margin of safety to legal limits for pesticides in food. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) investigation found the agency did not add the mandated children's health safety factor to the allowable limits for almost 90 percent of the most common pesticides.

The FQPA requires the EPA to set allowable levels for pesticides in a way that would "ensure that there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result to infants and children from aggregate exposure to the pesticide chemical residue." It was hailed as a revolutionary recognition of the fact that children are more vulnerable to the effects of chemical pesticides than adults, according to a statement by the EWG.

In the current study, researchers led by Olga Naidenko, PhD, vice president for science investigations at the EWG, also examined EPA risk assessments for a particularly toxic class of pesticides called organophosphates, which act in the same way as nerve gases like sarin and are known to harm children's brains and nervous systems. She found that under the Obama administration, the tenfold children's health safety factor was proposed for all organophosphate insecticides.

By contrast, in four assessments of pyrethroid insecticides, the EPA under the Trump administration has proposed adding the FQPA safety factor to none. In human epidemiological studies conducted in the U.S. and in Denmark, exposure to pyrethroid insecticides was associated with increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

In 2017, the EPA reversed the Obama administration's FQPA determination for chlorpyrifos, the most widely used organophosphate pesticide in the U.S. Despite the EPA's decision, in the wake of bans by Hawaii, California, and New York, the main U.S. chlorpyrifos manufacturer recently announced it will stop making this chemical. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will uphold the tenfold FQPA determination for the entire group of organophosphates, the authors said.

The study also found that the EPA has proposed to increase by 2.6-fold the allowable exposure to the herbicide metolachlor. The use of metolachlor has been on the rise for the past decade, with more than 60 million pounds sprayed annually, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Biomonitoring studies conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and independent researchers reported the presence of multiple pesticides and their byproducts in the American population, including herbicides such as glyphosate and 2,4-D, the bee-killing neonicotinoid insecticides, organophosphate and pyrethroid insecticides, and fungicide metabolites.

"Given the potential health hazards of pesticides in our food, it is disturbing that the EPA has largely ignored the law's requirement to ensure adequate protection for children," said Naidenko in a statement. "The added safety factor is essential to protect children from pesticides that can cause harm to the nervous system, hormonal disruption, and cancer."