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EPA Considers Higher Uncertainty Factor in All Pesticide Risk Determinations

(Beyond Pesticides, November 24, 2009) The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering expanding to all pesticides the use of what is typically referred to as the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) safety factor (the allowable margin of error or the uncertainty factor in risk determinations), which is currently only applied to the agency’s pesticide evaluations for infants and children. Under the plan the increased uncertainty factor will be applied to other sensitive populations, including farmworkers. Beyond Pesticides learned of the plan through communications with the agency over the past several months. EPA officials told Beyond Pesticides that, under the Obama Administration leadership, the agency would like to apply an equal standard to all people living in the U.S. Beyond Pesticides called on the Obama Administration to protect farmworkers and their children in the Transforming Pesticide Policy document sent after the 2008 election to President Obama’s transition team and top agency officials.

Applying an additional uncertainty factor in risk assessments affecting infants and children and a reassessment of all existing pesticide tolerances were touted as the centerpieces of FQPA, which passed and amended the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the federal pesticide law, in 1996. The legislation gained momentum after a 1993 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children, recommended an uncertainty factor. Responding to the NAS recommendation, FQPA states that, “An additional tenfold [10X] margin of safety for the pesticide chemical residue and other sources of exposure shall be applied for infants and children to take into account potential pre- and post-natal toxicity and completeness of data with respect to exposure and toxicity to infants and children. Notwithstanding such requirement for an additional margin of safety, the Administrator may use a different margin of safety for the pesticide chemical residue only if, on the basis of reliable data, such margin will be safe for infants and children.”

Director of EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) Debbie Edwards, Ph.D. said that the question of how much more broadly to apply the standard is a top priority for 2010. She said OPP will release a white paper on the idea for public comment. The idea is in part a response to the agency’s new focus on environmental justice, a key priority of Administrator Lisa Jackson. “We’re looking to develop a consistent human health risk assessment for all,” Dr. Edwards told Inside EPA. “We’re looking to [consider all populations] the same.”

Inside EPA reports that “an agency source says a group of agency lawyers and risk assessors is considering the issue, and OPP is also consulting with EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP), which is seeing a resurgence of influence under the new administration. The idea is to take into account all exposures including residential and food exposures.”

Over the years, Beyond Pesticides has periodically criticized the agency in public comments for what appears to be an arbitrary application of the FQPA 10X safety factor, which has manipulated safety data and allowed hazardous pesticide uses to remain on the market. Additionally, EPA typically fails to add the FQPA safety factor when evaluating specific pesticide risks to farmworker children. Even under the current policy, an additional 10X safety factor should be added to protect the unborn children of pregnant farmworkers because these babies, who are not employees, may be exposed to pesticides at a very vulnerable stage of their development.

Despite these concerns, Beyond Pesticides believes that, in principle, an increased uncertainty factor to protect sensitive populations, including farmworkers – especially pregnant workers, will help reduce the hazards posed by pesticide use.


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