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 Johnson 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 E.P.A. policy to resume consideration.
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 E.P.A. gave paid subjects doses of pesticides
100 to 300 times greater than levels that E.P.A. officials considered safe for
the general public. The E.P.A. 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. Although subjects suffered
numbness in the upper arms, the Dow doctors ruled that this was “possibly”
related to the pesticide. Other subjects complained of headaches, nausea, vomiting
and stomach cramps. Again, the doctors in the Dow study 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 yet the E.P.A. considered 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 known toxic chemicals for a two year period. The
Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study, dubiously known as 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 infants and
toddlers in Duval County, Florida who are routinely exposed to pesticides in
their homes. Yet the E.P.A. acknowledges that pesticide exposure is a documented
risk factor for some types of 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 that “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 participants 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 steps to intervene if
the children show signs of developmental delay or register high levels of exposure
to pesticides in the periodic testing.
Parents receive $970 for participating in the study, 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 in an e-mail to
his colleagues last year, “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, once the study is concluded, this will allow the council to proclaim
that the E.P.A. found no side effects, and in turn allow them to lobby Congress
to weaken regulations on these chemicals.
Stephen L. Johnson is a scientist of the worst kind. Testing of pesticides
on humans 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 that is not who should be leading the E.P.A.