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Daily News Blog

09
Jul

EPA Agenda Undermined by Its Embrace of Industry Influence, Article Documents

(Beyond Pesticides, July 9, 2021) The investigative online publication The Intercept has turned its attention to the current and historical role of industry in distorting, undermining, and outright suppressing the protective function of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with regard to pesticide exposures. The subsequent reporting — “The Department of Yes: How Pesticide Companies Corrupted the EPA and Poisoned America” — is a devastating chronicle of the theme and particulars that Beyond Pesticides has covered for years. That is, that EPA has repeatedly disregarded its charge to protect human and environmental health in favor of enabling industry to continue its chemical experimentation on the populace and on the nation’s multiple natural resources. This pattern must change if the agency is to enact its mission and the public is to be protected.

The Intercept interviewed more than 24 people with expertise on the regulation of pesticides, including 14 who have worked in EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP). The chief takeaway from those interviews, as written by reporter Sharon Lerner, is that EPA “is often unable to stand up to the intense pressures from powerful agrochemical companies, which spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying each year and employ many former EPA scientists once they leave the agency. The enormous corporate influence has weakened and, in some cases, shut down the meaningful regulation of pesticides in the U.S. and left the country’s residents exposed to levels of dangerous chemicals not tolerated in many other nations.”

The Intercept cites several top-level examples of EPA’s failures to protect, unearthed during the research for the article:

  • waiver, at industry request, of the vast majority of toxicity tests that could yield useful information on pesticide impacts
  • squelching of an internal report warning of the link between glyphosate and cancer
  • refusal to investigate evidence of carcinogenicity for another ingredient in Monsanto’s glyphosate-based product, Roundup
  • failure to review evidence of brain-damaging impacts of a neonicotinoid pesticide
  • dismissal of scientific research demonstrating that malathion causes cancer

An especially egregious example of EPA’s abdication of its protective mission is its record on the organophosphate insecticide, chlorpyrifos. The compound acts on pests by inhibiting the function of acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme essential to normal nerve pulse transmission, by binding irreversibly to receptor sites for that enzyme. In that action, it inactivates the enzyme, damages the central and peripheral nervous systems, and disrupts neurological activity. Chlorpyrifos is associated with harmful reproductive, renal, hepatic, and endocrine disrupting effects, and most notably, with neurodevelopmental impacts, especially in children. It is a neurological toxicant that damages their brains and leads to compromised cognitive function, attention deficit disorder, developmental delays, lowered IQs, and a host of other developmental and learning anomalies.

Ms. Lerner interviewed Lianne Sheppard, PhD, a professor and biostatistician at the University of Washington who led 2020 research that investigated a 1972 study that ultimately became foundational to EPA’s approach to the notorious organophosphate. That 1972 research — by Frederick Coulston, a professor at Albany Medical College — was commissioned by Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of chlorpyrifos in the late 1960s. Dr. Sheppard attempted to reproduce the results represented by the study data, but could not.

Further investigation showed that the paper on that research — which was actually written by Dow statisticians — had left out of the data analysis critical information that caused resultant EPA safe exposure limits (“no observed adverse effect levels,” or NOELs) to be, as Beyond Pesticides wrote, “flat out wrong.” In their 2020 peer-reviewed paper, Dr. Sheppard and her co-authors concluded that “the omission of valid data without justification was a form of data falsification.” By 2020, however, massive on-the-ground damage had been done because of EPA’s adoption of the NOELs “justified” by the erroneous data in that paper. And at EPA, presumably, either no one noticed, or no one cared to do anything about it.

The Intercept article summarizes: “On one level, the story of the Coultson paper is simple: Decades ago, a seemingly small omission happened to slip past regulators. And yet the consequences of that one statistical sleight of hand, and the government’s failure to notice it, are immense. Between 1992 and 2017, chlorpyrifos was one of the most heavily used pesticides in the U.S., with some 450 million pounds of it sprayed on crops. Countless children and pregnant people were exposed to what we now know were unsafe levels. And those exposures have since been found to increase the risk of a wide range of neurodevelopmental problems in children, including ADHD and other attention disorders, autism, tremors, and intelligence deficits, as well as memory and motor problems. Although the true toll of that brain damage is incalculable, pediatrician and environmental health researcher Leonardo Trasande estimates that exposure to organophosphate pesticides, the class to which chlorpyrifos belongs, caused children born in the U.S. in a single year — 2010 — to collectively lose 1.8 million IQ points, costing the country $44.7 billion in productivity, education, and health costs.”

The Intercept article excavates the details of EPA history of dysfunction related to other dangerous pesticides, as well: glyphosate, pelargonic acid, malathion, and the neonicotinoid class of insecticides. It also calls out industry practice (and EPA’s assent) to the ongoing “substitution” of a newer pesticide or a combined protocol (using two pesticides together, mixed either in formulation or on site) to replace a problematic one.

The scientists with whom Ms. Lerner talked reported “immense pressure from within the agency to overlook the risks they found. And several said they faced retribution for calling attention to the dangers of pesticides. ‘If you bring something up that’s an inconvenient truth, you get circumvented for any kind of committee work that you would need to have to get a promotion,’ one toxicologist who used to work for the agency’s pesticide office told The Intercept. ‘It is the unwritten rule that to get promotions, all pesticides need to pass.’”

Interviewees also noted that such pressure sometimes comes from members of Congress, who contact the agency on behalf of pesticide companies whose products are in review; staff have called such cases “yes packages” — those that “must” be approved, regardless of the science that is supposed to underlie all regulatory decisions. The article cites an example of a “yes package” for a pesticide to treat a papaya virus (which was destroying the crop in Hawaii). No studies of its safety had been conducted, yet EPA managers insisted that agency scientists sign off on its approval. Said one EPA scientist interviewed, “The rest of us are sitting around thinking, ‘OK, you hire the scientists to do the work, and now you’re telling us as regulatory people to make it fit? We’re flat out telling you that’s not OK.’” The company never did submit any data, and that pesticide was approved for use.

Ms. Lerner points out that EPA showed a “promising start” after its 1970 launch. She notes, “In its first decade, the EPA canceled the registration of 12 pesticides, including DDT, aldrin, and dieldrin, which [Rachel] Carson had written about at length. In those early years, the regulatory agency had the power to inspire fear in chemical companies.” But subsequently, in the 1980s, the pace of removal of toxic pesticides from use slowed considerably, with a mere eight being canceled during that decade. From 2000 to 2010, four have been removed, and from 2010–2020, exactly one has been deregistered for use.

Since 1970, EPA has canceled only 37 of the many thousands of pesticides on the market; EPA maintains that it has cancelled 40 “pesticide products.” Those paltry numbers stack up against the 16,800 pesticide products and 1,200 active ingredients overseen by EPA. Once a leader in environmental protections, the U.S. now trails other countries with significant agricultural economies in its protections against toxic pesticides.

A 2019 study by Dr. Nathan Donley of the Center for Biological Diversity noted that, in 2016, the U.S. used more than 300 million pounds of pesticides banned by other countries — largely for environmental and health reasons. Dr. Donley told Ms. Lerner that “at least 85 pesticides banned in China, Brazil, or the European Union were still used in the U.S. in 2016, a number that has almost certainly increased since then.” EPA’s regulatory activity took a dramatic dive during the Trump administration.

The role of the pesticide industry in such EPA failings is not to be underestimated; indeed, industry was courted at EPA from 2017 through 2020. From the 1960s’ attacks on Rachel Carson for her book, Silent Spring, which called out the industry for its devastation of the natural world through its products, the agrochemical industry has engaged in aggressive and unethical behaviors to pursue its one goal, profit, at the expense of human health, ecological, and biodiversity devastation.

Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) has gussied up that goal as the “freedom to operate.” A spokesperson for Bayer responded to an inquiry from Ms. Lerner with this: “Like many companies and organizations operating in highly regulated industries, we provide information and contribute to science-based policymaking and regulatory processes. Our engagements with all those in the public sector are routine, professional, and consistent with all laws and regulations.”

But the record shows otherwise. In the past two decades, in particular, pesticide companies have exerted unrelenting pushback against almost any proposed regulatory actions, and have used a raft of unsavory tactics to do so. Among them, as the article notes, are “ghostwriting purportedly independent scientific papers, cozying up to regulators, and attempting to discredit journalists who exposed the dangers of Monsanto’s products.” Beyond Pesticides has written about these tactics in its Daily News Blog in 2017 and 2020, and in its journal, Pesticides and You, in 2018.

Monsanto/Bayer has hardly been alone in such campaigns; Dow, Corteva, Syngenta, and others participate, as well. As Charles Benbrook, PhD, a long-time agricultural economist who has investigated the pesticide industry’s “legislative/regulatory pressure activities,” notes: “The regulatory affairs staff of all of these major chemical companies have a very clear job: to propose and gain approval of registrations that expand the ways and places and times that the company’s products can be used and to keep all existing registrations fully in place and resist any changes in labels . . . that might cost them a percent or two in market share. . . . [They] constantly regurgitate their own spin on the science. And they refer to papers that they get into the journals that have been either commissioned or partially or wholly ghostwritten.”

The companies (and/or their trade associations) also court regulators directly by taking them on junkets so they can “get to know” the farms and farmers that use pesticides. One EPA scientist quoted in the article said, “It felt kind of brain-washy. By the end, I thought, ‘You really do need these chemicals, otherwise you’ll have crop failure.’” Pesticide company representatives are also apparently in the actual EPA headquarters in DC all the time, according to Ms. Lerner’s reporting.

“The representatives of the companies are usually, though not always, friendly and eager to help, according to several scientists who have worked at the agency’s pesticide office. ‘When you come into the lobby, many times there’s a chemical or ag lobbyist there. They just bop in,’ said Karen McCormack, a scientist who retired from the EPA in 2017 after working on pesticides for 40 years. ‘They want to be your friend. They always compliment you. But if you don’t do what they want, they’ll go to your boss or above your boss and say, “We can’t work with you anymore.” And you’ll be taken off the project and put on something that’s meaningless.’”

Achieving waivers of toxicity testing is another front in industry’s efforts. The article reports, “The EPA’s pesticide office granted 972 industry requests to waive toxicity tests between December 2011 and May 2018, 89 percent of all requests made. Among the tests on pesticides that were never performed were 90 percent of tests looking for developmental neurotoxicity, 92 percent of chronic cancer studies, and 97 percent of studies looking at how pesticides harm the immune system.” Allowing pesticides to come onto market without testing them for toxicities is a gross violation of EPA’s charge. But industry is all about it, and they appear to have had managers in the agency who shared their enthusiasm. Below is a 2018 email invitation to other EPA OPP managers “to celebrate what many people concerned about exposure to pesticides would consider a grim landmark: having waived 1,000 toxicity tests.”

Ms. Lerner also reports on internal agency retaliation against employees who raise concerns about EPA’s ignoring of pesticide risks, waiving testing, etc. This happens in the forms of removal from committees (or not being appointed to them despite the individual’s relevance and expertise); being passed over for promotion; being “written up” for imagined infractions, or being moved (e.g., demoted) to other positions, among others. Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Tim Whitehouse indicates that the organization has recently received multiple inquiries and reports from employees in OPP. He commented, “Current and former employees have been reaching out to us in increasing numbers and expressing concerns about the office culture at OPP and the fact that if scientists speak out about their concerns, they will not last long in that division. Morale has been bad, and it’s getting steadily worse over the years.”

Another problem in the EPA–industry landscape is the “revolving door” of personnel moving from EPA to industry and its trade groups, and vice versa, an issue that Beyond Pesticides has called out. “Since 1974, all seven of the [OPP’s] directors who continued to work after leaving the agency went on to make money from the pesticide companies they used to regulate,” reports The Intercept. Many other officials from EPA have joined the ranks in the agrochemical industry over the decades. “The problem with this continuous flow of experts from the government to pesticide companies — and sometimes back again — isn’t just that it can enable dangerous chemicals to evade regulatory scrutiny but that it also shapes the culture within the agency. ‘Management officials graduate and move to direct hires with the registrants,’” according to Bill Hirzy, a 27-year veteran of EPA. “‘So these management officials are loath to take any action that is likely to limit their post-EPA employment opportunities.’”

The article suggests that the long-standing, and unofficial but real, enmeshment between the agency and industry helps explain the persistence of poor regulatory performance across multiple federal administrations and the agendas that come with them, including the Biden administration, which has pledged to address the scientific integrity issues at EPA. Lori Ann Burd of the Center or Biological Diversity notes that she has clocked only minor differences to date in EPA’s approach to pesticides under President Joe Biden’s administration. “They’re taking a slightly different tone. But in our litigation, it’s the same brass knuckles, fight to the death over everything.”

The sheer volume of data and information with which EPA has to contend is another hurdle identified by The Intercept. Corporations are, Ms. Lerner notes, far more powerful and better resourced than the federal agency responsible for regulating them, and can easily generate and submit volumes of information that EPA does not have enough funding, and therefore, staff hours, to evaluate effectively. Ms. McCormack (the retired EPA scientist mentioned previously) commented, “There aren’t enough resources to go through all the studies. And there isn’t enough time. What happens then is that people at EPA look at what the [hired external] contractors said and decide whether to accept it or not. For the most part, they just [do].”

A further hitch in EPA functioning is the 1947 federal law, FIFRA, itself; it is the authorizing legislation for the oversight and regulation of pesticides. FIFRA (The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act) was not written with health or environmental protection as its goals. It was written, according to Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, “to protect farmers and encourage pesticide companies to bring new products to the market. . . . FIFRA is encoded to approve pesticides.”

FIFRA says that EPA can refuse to register a pesticide only if the adverse effects it causes (on human health, wildlife, or the environment) outweigh the benefits its use confers (measured in terms of crop yield and quality). Ms. Lerner writes, “So even if a pesticide presents a clear danger, the agency often finds that the danger is outweighed by whatever economic advantages it offers.” EarthJustice attorney Patti Goldman said that EPA looks for ways to “balance out” risks it identifies so as to avoid having to take pesticides off the market. She says, “If EPA finds risk, it will look at benefits to growers. You get to the end, and EPA says the company is willing to use a little less, or use it a little less often, or they’ll put a little bit of a buffer around schools, or require some protective clothing, and then they’ll just say we find the risk is less than the benefits. It’s unprincipled.”

Beyond Pesticides asserts that EPA must, in evaluating the “reasonableness” of identified risks of pesticides, balance them against the risks presented by other systems. For example, it is obvious that organic farmers raise any and all of the crops in question without toxic pesticides, and therefore, this approach carries none of the identified risks of pesticide use. The serious adverse effects of a given pesticide are necessarily, then, unreasonable — unless EPA can demonstrate that the pesticide can be deployed in a way that eliminates those risks.

The chickens (of decades of toxic, poorly regulated pesticide use) have begun to come home to roost — in the form of increasing numbers and varieties of lawsuits against manufacturers from people who have been harmed. (See, for example, Beyond Pesticides’ coverage of the legion of litigation on glyphosate and dicamba.)

These serious harms have occurred through no fault of the sufferers, but via the combined effects of shameless industry practices and an EPA that is not sufficiently and appropriately resourced — culturally, managerially, statutorily, or funds-wise — to achieve its mission.

Dr. Benbrook asserts that the “inescapable problem is the financial mismatch between the underfunded government agency and the immense corporations that continue to outfox, outmaneuver, and vastly outspend it. How can EPA fight these major chemical companies when they are willing to spend an amount of money that is roughly equivalent to the entire Office of Pesticide Programs annual budget to defend just one chemical?”

One solution is for EPA to recalibrate itself in alignment with a precautionary approach, and to move aggressively and authoritatively on its protective mission. Others are: Congressional funding of the agency at levels required to perform well; amendment of FIFRA; and EPA Office of the Inspector General and Congressional crackdowns on the ability of industry to interact with the agency, and on the ability of the revolving door to continue to operate. The public can pressure elected officials to take up such measures; find your Senator and Representatives here.

Source: https://theintercept.com/2021/06/30/epa-pesticides-exposure-opp/

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

 

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