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Daily News Blog

20
May

Corruption Problems Persist at EPA

(Beyond Pesticides, May 20, 2022) Beyond Pesticides has long covered the various ways in which corruption related to pesticides, agriculture, and food — whether in industry or government — can result in harm to human and environmental health, including to a multiplicity of organisms, and their ecosystems and habitats. In this Daily News Blog entry, we will review the landscape of U.S. pesticide regulation, examples of corruption, and what can be done to counter it.

A look at some recent instances provides unfortunate assurance that problems of corruption at EPA persist. A serious flaw in EPA’s registration (and periodic pesticide registration review) processes is their reliance on industry-provided data and research on safety of pesticide products, which does not reliably represent actual risks of harms. Agrochemical companies sometimes purchase research that yields biased or distorted findings, cherry pick results in their submissions to EPA, or try to suppress research findings.

USRTK recently covered an instance in which Bayer (and other companies) funded a study on the impacts — of use of their neonicotinoid (neonic) corn seed treatments — on bees during planting season. Neonics have been widely implicated in the plummeting health, function, and populations of pollinators and in the so-called “insect apocalypse,” as covered by Beyond Pesticides and The Intercept. Bayer then pressured the university-based academic research team to leave out of the research report photos that implicated a neonic-treated seed product harmful to bees. Such attempts to control research findings, or communications about them, are common. In the Bayer case, all findings were eventually published, but not without industry attempts to suppress “damaging” information.

In another instance of industry misbehavior, the outcome of a court case, revealed only days ago by the U.S. Department of Justice, is a guilty plea by a pesticide company product manager to the charge of falsifying and using a document in order to obtain approval from EPA to manufacture a pesticide. (Both the company and the specific pesticide are unnamed in the DOJ statement.) Christopher James Davis, of Venice, California knowingly submitted to EPA documents (supporting the registration of a pesticide) that falsely represented that the pesticide had been approved for manufacture and use in Canada. It had not, but EPA relied on that false information in its approval of the manufacturer’s application.

Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division commented, “The honesty of individuals applying to manufacture pesticides is vital to protecting the public’s health and the environment.” EPA Criminal Investigation Division Special Agent in Charge Chuck Carfagno added, “In order to safeguard the environment, it is essential that the Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide programs receive accurate and honest information from pesticide producers and their employees. This guilty plea sends a clear message that EPA and its law enforcement partners will continue to hold individuals fully accountable for illegal conduct that jeopardizes the environment.” Fair enough, but it begs the question: why would EPA just accept such a representation from a pesticide company without investigating the claim?

There are myriad ways in which toxic pesticides enter the environment, and the organisms and resources in it: through direct application (and misapplication) in agriculture and turf management, for uses in buildings (homes, schools, hospitals, etc.), via airborne applications for crops or insects and the drift that results, in coatings on crop seeds, via animal feed, in “pest control” strategies, in pet treatments and collars, and embedded in consumer products (e.g., disinfectants, clothing and textiles, toys, and many other items). Customers for these products range from the average American consumer to huge entities such as the agricultural, healthcare, and military sectors, as well as many smaller institutions and industries.

How does the firehose of roughly 17,000 chemical pesticide products available in the U.S. happen? The two big “players” that make decisions about pesticide use are government and industry. (Academia enters the picture, as well, in that universities are often tapped for various kinds of research.) On the government side, Congress generates laws that guide federal regulatory agencies as they enact the laws. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) is the chief statute governing pesticide policy and regulation, though other statutes, such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), the Food Quality Production Act of 1996 (FQPA) — which modified both ESA and FFDCA — and the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act (PRIA) also affect pesticide management.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the primary regulatory body for pesticides in the country. Other federal agencies have some regulatory, monitoring, and/or enforcement roles, including the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), USDA (Department of Agriculture), FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service), OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), Consumer Products Safety Division (CPSC), NIH (National Institutes of Health), CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), ATSDR (the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry), NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences), and DOT (Department of Transportation), as do various state-level (and occasionally, county or municipal) agencies.

The other big entity is the pesticide industry, which includes, dominantly, agrochemical and petrochemical companies that must apply to have their pesticide products registered by EPA. The registration process is described by EPA as “a scientific, legal, and administrative procedure through which we examine the ingredients of the pesticide, the particular site or crop where it is to be used, the amount, frequency, and timing of its use, and storage and disposal practices. In evaluating a pesticide registration application, we assess a wide variety of potential human health and environmental effects associated with use of the product. The company that wants to produce the pesticide must provide data from studies that comply with our testing guidelines.”

EPA also is required to develop and conduct risk assessments for potential harms to “humans, wildlife, fish, and plants, including endangered species and non-target organisms . . . contamination of surface water or ground water from leaching, runoff, and spray drift.” It defines potential risks to humans as those ranging from acute toxicity to long-term impacts (e.g., cancer, reproductive system disorders, et al.). The agency also approves the text that appears on the labels on pesticide products “to ensure the directions for use and safety measures are appropriate to any potential risk.”

Industry’s goal is to sell as much product as it can. Government’s role (through its agencies) is supposed to be regulatory and protective. In-house federal agency research scientists, those in academia, and those working in private laboratories may contribute to both government and industry evaluation of pesticide products. In any of these arenas, and as with all human processes and systems, there are opportunities for distortion, negligence, and outright corruption, and so it is in the universe of pesticide research, evaluation, registration, and use.

These instances threaten the public and its interests, and require members of the public, environmental and health advocates, and “good government” entities to pay close attention to how that interest is compromised or harmed, and work to reform systems and processes to reduce and prevent them in the future. Indeed, to this end, Congress has created 57 Offices of the Inspector General (OIGs), attached to various federal agencies, whose purpose is “to prevent and detect waste, fraud, and abuse relating to their agency’s programs and operations, and to promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness in the agency’s operations and programs.”

There are too many examples of bad behavior to review comprehensively in this Daily News Blog; readers can learn more through Beyond Pesticides’ coverage of, e.g., Monsanto/Bayer malfeasance related to dicamba and general Monsanto misconduct disclosed in the Monsanto Papers; undermining of science and outsize industry influence at USDA; the threat to scientific integrity at EPA (p. 17); EPA receptivity to industry influence; whistleblower “outing” of unethical practices at EPA; and the “capture” of EPA by industry.

In the summer and fall of 2021, Beyond Pesticides reported on complaints filed with the EPA’s OIG by PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) on behalf of four EPA whistleblower scientists. These individuals maintained that “risk assessments for both new and existing chemicals were improperly changed by agency managers to eliminate or reduce calculations of risks.” More specifically, they charged that during the Trump administration and into 2021, managers at EPA (in both the Office of Pesticide Programs and the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics’ New Chemicals Division) accessed “risk assessments completed by staff scientists in order to . . . remove language that identifies potential adverse effects, including developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, mutagenicity, and/or carcinogenicity; and [to] revise conclusions in risk assessment reports significantly to indicate no toxicity concerns despite data to the contrary.”

It is not only the pesticide industry that engages in unsavory practices. The conventional food industry (and notoriously, the fossil fuel industry, the tobacco industry before that, and others) engage in the practice of funding third-party “front groups” to advance their messaging, too often including disinformation, so as to maintain profits. The practice, sometimes called “astroturfing,” encourages an impression of grassroots or public support for such groups, when in fact, they exist to promote industry interests among the public, and with legislators and regulators. Often, the groups sport names that attempt to make them sound like reasonable, unbiased, informational entities.

Globalization and Health released a report in February 2022 investigating the work of one such group, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) and its foundation, whose funding sources are not widely or well-disclosed, but which draft Internal Revenue Service documents show to include PepsiCo, Mars, Inc., Kraft, and Monsanto, among others. IFIC has, according to the research, voiced strong opposition to nutritional research demonstrating the role of sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages in obesity epidemics.

Further, the researchers “suggest that IFIC promotes a skewed portrayal of evidence, disseminating only research which is favourable to industry,” and note how IFIC uses its “seeming credibility [to] reach the press, policy makers, and the public at large” — which its underlying funders cannot do because of clear conflicts of interest. These front groups “camouflage” messaging to make it appear more legitimate than it is. The report’s conclusion: “IFIC’s promotion of evidence for the food industry should be interpreted as marketing strategy for those funders. Effective science communication may be obfuscated by undeclared conflicts of interests.”

None of these phenomena does anything to repair public trust in science, government agencies and officials, or other institutions whose goals are, nominally, the well-being of life on the planet. In 2021, Beyond Pesticides and 37 other environmental and health groups, farm organizations, and beekeeper councils sent a letter to EPA imploring the organization to reform its Office of Pesticide Programs in light of the agency’s broad and persistent failures to regulate pesticide use effectively enough to protect human and environmental health.

It is clear that Congress must either (1) be made far more aware of EPA failures and the ethical failures of the agency, and of the companies it is supposed to regulate, than it appears it is, or (2) be made to understand the concern, fear, and outrage of the public, which is subjected to pesticide and other toxic chemical exposures in multiple ways every single day.

Follow these issues through Beyond Pesticides’ Daily News Blog, the Take Action feature on the website homepage, and through our journal, Pesticides and You. Please consider getting involved, by calling or writing to your federal elected officials, to EPA itself, to companies that engage in astroturfing, or to a research university with which you may be affiliated, and/or by joining or developing a local, genuinely grassroots organization to work on these kinds of issues. We can help; contact us at 202.543.5450 or [email protected].

Sources: https://usrtk.org/pesticides/bayer-osu-neonic/, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/former-executive-pesticide-manufacturing-company-pleads-guilty-making-and-using-false, and https://globalizationandhealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12992-022-00806-8

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

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