25 September 2014

President Bush recently nominated Stephen L. Johnson, a 24-year veteran of the Environmental Protection Agency, to be the agency’s new administrator.  Mr. Johnson has been the acting administrator since January, and prior to that oversaw the EPA office handling pesticides and other toxic substances. In nominating Johnson, Mr. Bush described him as “a talented scientist” and having “good judgment and complete integrity.”



Yet his record as the Assistant Administrator for Toxic Substances casts serious doubt on whether he is suited to lead the E.P.A., an agency directly affecting Americans’ health and many significant industries, including automobiles and agriculture. During President Bush’s first term, Johnson was a strong supporter of pesticide testing on humans.



During President Clinton’s administration, the E.P.A. would not consider the results of controversial trials that tested pesticides on people. But after Mr. Bush was elected, Johnson changed the policy to permit consideration, saying, “We are willing to consider that such studies can be useful”. However, a panel of scientists and ethicists convened by the E.P.A. in 1998 determined that these types of trials were unethical and scientifically unsuitable to estimate the safety of chemicals.



In 2001, the trials considered by the agency gave paid subjects doses of pesticides hundreds of times greater than levels that E.P.A. officials considered safe for the general public. The agency evaluated three studies that year from Dow Chemicals, Bayer Corporation, and the Gowan Company. The Bayer and Gowan studies were conducted in third-world countries, where volunteers were more readily available, while Dow conducted their study in Nebraska.



In the Dow study, human subjects were given doses four times the level that the E.P.A. knew produced adverse affects in animals. Subjects suffered numbness, headaches, nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps.  Dow’s doctors determined that these symptoms were “possibly” or “probably” related to the chemical.  But in the final analysis of the study, Dow concluded that the pesticide did not produce any symptoms. And the E.P.A. accepted it.



It’s wasn’t surprising then that in October of last year, Johnson strongly supported a study in which infants will be monitored for health impacts as they undergo exposure to toxic chemicals for a two-year period. The Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS), will analyze how chemicals can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed by children ranging from infants to three year olds. The study will analyze 60 children in Duval County, Florida who are routinely exposed to pesticides in their homes. Yet the E.P.A. acknowledges that pesticide exposure is a risk factor for childhood cancer and the early onset of asthma.



Other aspects of CHEERS are equally troublesome. The participants will be selected from six health clinics and three hospitals in Duval County. The E.P.A. study proposal noted, “Although all Duval County citizens are eligible to use the [health care] centers, they primarily serve individuals with lower incomes. In the year 2000, 75 percent of the users of the clinics for pregnancy issues were at or below the poverty level.”  The proposal also cited that “The percentage of births to individuals classified as black in the U.S. Census is higher at these three hospitals than for the County as a whole.”



The E.P.A. is targeting the poor and African-Americans for the study, presumably in the hope that they will be less informed about the dangers of exposing their children to pesticides, and will therefore continue to expose them over the two-year period. The study actually mandates that parents not be provided information about the proper ways to apply or store pesticides around the home. And the parents cannot be informed of the risks of prolonged or excessive exposure to pesticides. Additionally, the study does not provide guidelines to intervene if the children show signs of developmental delay or register dangerous levels of pesticide exposure in the periodic testing.



Parents receive $970 for participating, but only if they continue over the two-year period. This is a powerful inducement for these impoverished parents to keep exposing their children to pesticides.  Even some E.P.A. officials have been troubled by the lack of safeguards to ensure that these parents are not swayed into exposing their children to the chemicals. Troy Pierce, a scientist in the E.P.A.’s Atlanta based pesticides office, wrote to his colleagues last year via e-mail, “This does sound like it goes against everything we recommend at EPA concerning use of (pesticides) related to children. Paying families in Florida to have their homes routinely treated with pesticides is very sad when we at EPA know that (pesticide management) should always be used to protect children.”



Additionally, it was disclosed that the American Chemistry Council gave $2.1 million to the E.P.A. to fund CHEERS. The council is comprised of many pesticide manufacturers. These manufacturers have known since the 1970s of the long-term toxicity of the pesticides being tested in the study.  But since this study only lasts two years, there will likely be little or no obvious short-term effects. Consequently, this will allow the council to proclaim that the E.P.A. found no side effects, and in turn allow it to lobby Congress to weaken regulations on these chemicals.



Stephen L. Johnson’s strong support of pesticide testing on humans is morally and scientifically reprehensible. The testing provides no health benefit to the subjects, or to society at large. But it does help chemical companies who claim that their products are not dangerous. And this is not the type of help that the future head of the E.P.A. should be giving.