How dangerous are the pesticides used in consumer products? An investigation by an environmental group says the answer is unclear, because the EPA used a loophole to approve many of them.
Many pesticides used in consumer products and agriculture received federal approval through a loophole that doesn’t require thorough testing, according to a study released Wednesday by an environmental group.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency used a regulatory loophole to approve 65% of 16,000 pesticides that pose a potential threat to public health, according to the two-year investigation by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The authors say the EPA’s database makes it unclear how many of those pesticides received adequate, if any, testing.
“People should be concerned, because we have examples of at least two pesticides on the market that shouldn’t have been approved,” says NRDC attorney Mae Wu, who co-authored the study with Jennifer Sass, a senior health scientist. Wu points to nanosilver, which was approved as an anti-microbial agent in clothing but may damage brain and liver cells, and clothianidin, which was designed to be absorbed into plant tissue but is passed on fatally to bees and other pollinators.
“EPA has not yet had a chance to carefully review the issue brief,” the agency said in a statement. It cites its own internal review, posted on its website, that said subsequent pesticide information submitted to the EPA “confirms that products initially registered on a conditional basis are not posing unacceptable risks to human health or the environment.”
In that review, however, the EPA said it had widely (98% of the time) misused its “conditional registration” of pesticides from 2004 to 2010.
In 1978, Congress gave the EPA authority to issue approvals on a conditional basis — often for a period of time while initial or additional testing occurs — for pesticides needed to address public health emergencies. It intended for the agency to use this authority sparingly.
The EPA says that before granting a conditional registration, it must still determine that a pesticide’s use would not significantly increase the risk of “unreasonable adverse effects” on the environment during the time needed to obtain the necessary data.
“It’s kind of a black hole. … We don’t know what percentage of pesticides were tested”before approval, Wu says, arguing the EPA’s database is disorganized and lacks transparency. The NRDC calls on the EPA to review all conditionally approved pesticides to ensure their safety and to make submitted data accessible for public review.
In the EPA’s statement Wednesday, the agency said, “We will continue to work on improving record-keeping and have developed a plan to update the IT (information technology) systems to address that need.”
Wu is skeptical of the EPA’s comments about pesticide safety or its plans to improve its database. She says, “It’s like saying, ‘We really messed up, but trust us, everything’s fine now.'”