Earlier this week, the New York Times printed their latest agriculture-focused article, “A Strong Case Against a Pesticide Does Not Faze E.P.A. Under Trump.” This is just another in a series of stories that lack balance and fail to represent the perspective of farmers or any other sector of the agriculture community. The inaccuracies in the article are too numerous for me to address all of them, but I’d like to focus on three distinct topics the author ignored: 1) the lack of raw data provided to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by the Columbia University study authors, 2) EPA’s lack of transparency regarding the use of epidemiological studies in regulatory decision-making, and 3) the approach suggested by activists to revoke tolerances as a strategy to bypass EPA’s process of a full review that would address registration cancelation.
The Columbia University study has been the focus of three Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) Scientific Advisory Panels (SAP) over the past nine years addressing the possible revocation of tolerances for chlorpyrifos, an important crop protection tool approved for use in approximately 100 countries and used in the U.S. to protect more than 50 crops. All three SAPs came to the same conclusion, questioning EPA’s shift to the use of certain epidemiological study outcomes rather than toxicological data in human health risk assessments. The SAPs have cautioned EPA against using the epi-study outcomes. During the most recent SAP last spring, speakers presented the SAP with a number of limitations of the Columbia Study, including the lack of access to raw data; the exposure measures used; the small population reported in the study; and the inability of EPA or others to replicate the study outcomes.
This leads us directly to EPA’s lack of transparency in establishing a framework to evaluate epidemiological studies. In September 2016, CLA submitted a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy requesting that the agency publish for public comment the proposed framework. The letter is a follow-up to a 2010 CLA petition to EPA asking that the agency “promulgate a rule establishing clear and scientifically-sound criteria for selection of epidemiological studies to be incorporated into the Office of Pesticide Programs (“OPP”) risk assessment for a given pesticide product.” EPA denied the 2010 petition, stating that they would release a framework for public comment within the year. It has been six years since they formally denied our request, and the agriculture community has yet to have a full and acceptable accounting of EPA’s epi-data evaluation and use policy. To this day, it is unclear how much weight was given to these studies or even which studies EPA may have been used in 2016 evaluations.
Finally, there is the question of process as it pertains to FIFRA. In 2014, NGO groups filed a petition in a federal court of appeals asking the court to force EPA to decide whether to revoke food tolerances for chlorpyrifos. Over EPA’s objection that it needed more time to adequately assess the human health risk posed by chlorpyrifos, the court set an October 2015 deadline for EPA to make a revocation decision. By requesting a revocation of tolerances, NGOs bypassed an important part of the process outlined in FIFRA that requires a full review of the chemistry and outlines the process to remove a product from the market. This sets a dangerous precedent: an activist group sought the power to bypass a regulatory process without the necessary data to back that decision.
The fact is, EPA Administrator Pruitt took a defensible and logical step in denying the petition to revoke chlorpyrifos tolerances in March. He is committed to a full and fair review of the product going forward. This is a far cry from claims made in the NYT story! This is about more than just chlorpyrifos, as the change in process would have established a new regulatory framework that could have severely impacted a wide array of agriculture technologies.
As a proud member of the agriculture community, I continue to find myself disheartened by the lack of balance in stories, in the mass media, addressing important and highly complex scientific issues. If we accept studies like the Columbia University study as fact, when there is no weight of evidence to support them, we risk losing the ability to provide U.S. consumers with a safe and nutritious food supply.
About the author: Jay Vroom is President & CEO, CropLife America