Will the EPA Make America Safe for Cockroaches?

By Michael Fumento

The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 1997
Copyright 1997 The Wall Street Journal

  Print this  Print this    Make text larger    Make text smaller

If you don’t like bugs, 1998 could be a bad year.

For in the next six weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency may promulgate the most sweeping anti-insecticide regulations in U.S. history. If it does, billions of dollars worth of crops may be lost annually, children may die from cockroach-related asthma and fire ant bites, and Lyme disease-carrying ticks may proliferate. And you may find that some of those raisins in your raisin bran, well, aren’t.

At issue is a class of insecticides known as organophosphates. They kill bugs by interfering with their central nervous systems. Indoors they are a powerful remedy for cockroaches, fleas and termites.

Outdoors they are used on practically every food crop you can name. For some crops there are absolutely no approved alternatives; for others the alternatives are either less effective or more expensive. In a 1994 study, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that eliminating just one of the most common organophosphates, chlorpyrifos, would cost $150 million annually.

According to Leonard Gianessi at the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington, extrapolating this to a ban on all organophosphates — an option the EPA is seriously considering — would cost $1 to $2 billion a year.

The argument against organophosphates is essentially that they’re poisonous — something that is true of most poisons. The question is how harmful they are to those of us with fewer than six legs. Answer: not very.

Studies on laboratory mice have found that the average human adult would need to eat 875 pounds of broccoli every day for the rest of his life to approach the chlorpyrifos levels that caused problems in the rodents.

A 1997 EPA memorandum stated that chlorpyrifos "is one of the leading causes of acute insecticide poisoning incidents in the United States."

That sounds ominous but isn’t. Of almost 1,000 pesticides registered for use in the U.S., chlorpyrifos is the fourth most common. It’s as if the government were claiming Fords are more dangerous than Ferraris because more Fords crash each year.

I spoke with numerous scientists and industry officials, and searched medical and newspaper databases, and I found not a single death or even near-death from chlorpyrifos that didn’t result from intentional ingestion — that is, suicide or attempted suicide.

True, some children have gotten hold of the chemical and, despite its bitter taste, become seriously ill from drinking it. But it appears all recovered fully. Long-term health effects from the insecticide have been found only among people who were so sick that they nearly died — that is, among attempted suicides.

Press accounts are rife with misinformation. The current issue of Newsweek, for example, carries a small item called "The Pesticide Risk for Toddlers," which advises that toys be put away when chlorpyrifos spray "bombs" are used.

What Newsweek doesn’t mention is that these bombs are no longer distributed, and even if they were, there is no evidence that a child licking a toy sprayed with them would incur harm.

Still, the largest manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, DowAgrosciences of Indianapolis, has established a panel of experts to recommend ways to make its product safer. The company has joined other manufacturers and trade groups in a fight with government officials to make warning labels easier to read than current regulations allow. The company funds poison control centers across the country, and has given piles of money to fund more than 250 studies on organophosphates.

That’s not good enough to satisfy some environmentalists. Nothing short of a total ban on household use of organophosphates will suffice, the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, asserted in a January paper.

The report preposterously claims that each day a million children under five consume "unsafe levels" of organophosphates, primarily from residue on fruits. It demands, as a first step, an immediate ban on agricultural use of chlorpyrifos and several other organophosphates.

"That would be foolish," says Barbara Petersen, a nutritional biochemist and head of Washington-based Novigen Sciences Inc. For 20 years she has evaluated pesticides and done dietary risk exposure studies under contract to both the EPA and industry, including some studies in which she collected grocery store samples.

"We found extremely low levels" of chlorpyrifos, she says. "In the vast majority nothing was detected, and when we did detect residues, they were way below levels that EPA has set as permissible."

That’s why the Environmental Working Group and other environmentalists — including top EPA officials — are now warning of the possible "additive" effect of pesticides, essentially arguing that harmless little bits can add up to a harmful level.

Nonsense, says Marcia van Gemert, until recently head of the EPA Toxicology Branch. "You can’t simply add two or three bodily risks together and conclude they cause a greater risk combined. Our {body} systems are a lot more complicated than that." Different chemicals, she adds, "have different targets, mechanisms, toxicities. They are really all quite different."

She also faults the Environmental Working Group’s science, saying the organization "made a lot of mistakes in exposure estimates, and they have made 10 or 15 assumptions in which you couldn’t retrace their steps." The attack on organophosphates, Ms. van Gemert adds, "is politically, not toxicologically, driven." Nonetheless, an EPA panel met last week to explore halting the use of some or all organophosphates on crops, with a decision expected as soon as May 15.

One option suggested in an internal memo circulated by the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs would "revoke all tolerances" for the chemicals. A tolerance is the amount of residue allowed on food, normally set at less than one-tenth the level that might harm anybody. Unless a crop has an established tolerance for a given pesticide, even one piece of fruit or vegetable in a shipment that has any detectable residue can cause the whole shipment to be seized and destroyed.

If the EPA were to revoke a pesticide’s registration outright, farmers and chemical makers could mount an immediate legal challenge. But in the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, Congress not only allowed the EPA to look at risks without considering benefits, but also expanded the agency’s enforcement options.

Among the agency’s new powers is the ability to revoke tolerances. If the EPA follows this course, affected parties will have no way — legal or administrative — to introduce scientific studies, need or common sense into the equation.

Maybe the EPA will do the right thing. Maybe it won’t drive fruit and vegetable prices up, ensuring that children eat less of them. Maybe it won’t kill asthmatic children by banning potent roach-killing sprays. But a lot of little critters have their antennae crossed hoping otherwise.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on the EPA and on pesticides.