EPA’s hormonal ups and downs

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Warning: the following contains an actual example of environmental advocates agreeing with the chemical industry. Both sides say that the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program is flawed.

The agreement pretty much ends there. But criticism of the screening plan to study the effects pesticides have on hormones surfaced from both sides at last week’s meeting of the Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee, a panel of manufacturers, scientists, and regulators that meets at least twice a year to give the EPA feedback on pesticide issues.

The screening program will determine officially which of the chemicals commonly used in pesticides may interfere with the endocrine system, the network of hormones and glands that control growth, metabolism, and even mood. Animal studies have shown that some of these chemicals can cause developmental and reproductive problems, and scientists worry about similar impacts in humans.

The program, which will be administered by the EPA but paid for and carried out by the chemical companies, is set to begin early next year, Senior Policy Adviser William Jordan told the committee. Endocrine testing of all pesticide active ingredients and some inert ingredients will eventually be incorporated into regular registration reviews that take place every 15 years.

The agency picked 73 chemicals for initial screening based on their frequent presence in food, water, and residential and occupational settings — not because of any suspected harmful effects. Both sides in the debate say the list isn’t quite right, but they disagree, not surprisingly, on why. Environmentalists want the testing to begin on chemicals they already strongly believe to be endocrine disruptors, while the industry wants to start with chemicals whose effects on the endocrine system are unknown.

Michael Fry, director of conservation advocacy for the American Bird Conservancy, says the EPA has its priorities backwards. Official testing should start with chemicals already widely believed to interfere with hormones, such as methoxychlor, a cockroach and mosquito killer, and vinclozalin, a fungicide used on raspberries and lettuce, instead of letting them slide. Otherwise, he says, these chemicals won’t be tested until they’re up for registration review years from now, delaying the implementation of regulations that may protect consumers from their harmful effects.

CropLife America, a trade group for the agricultural pesticide industry, argues that known endocrine disruptors have already been tested — that’s why they’re “known” — so screening them again is useless and expensive. Requiring companies to gather information that is already available would put an “undue financial burden” on the chemical industry, the organization wrote in a comment to the EPA in March.

The EPA accepted public comments through February on a draft of its chemical list. Still taking heat from both sides, the agency has submitted a final draft to the Office of Management and Budget for review.

Either way, the most common opinion heard at last week’s meeting is that people are anxious to get the program, originally mandated by the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, up and running. As Fry told his colleagues, the idea that some pesticides may be interfering with our hormones is so fundamentally troubling that it threatens “motherhood and apple pie.”

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