To Avoid Losing Top EPA Job, Johnson Drops Kids Pesticide Study
WASHINGTON, DC, April 11, 2005 (ENS) - A study planned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would pay parents to test their childrens' reaction to pesticides nearly proved to be an insurmountable stumbling block for the nominee to the agency's top post.
During his Senate confirmation hearing last week, EPA Acting Administrator Stephen Johnson was challenged about the ethics of the study, which was sidelined anyway until questions from the public about the ethics behind it were answered.
During the hearing, Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, criticized the Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS) and called on Johnson to end it. Boxer and Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, blocked Johnson's nomination until they were assured that controversial pesticide study was ended.
Johnson told senators at the hearing Wednesday that he would not cancel the study of childrens’ exposure to pesticides, but he backed down on Friday and said the study would not be conducted with EPA funding. His action removed a block that could have derailed his confirmation as EPA administrator.
"The Children's Health Environmental Exposure Research Study was designed to fill critical data gaps in our understanding of how children may be exposed to pesticides (such as bug spray) and chemicals currently used in households," said Johnson.
"Information from the study was intended to help EPA better protect children. EPA will continue to pursue the goal of protecting children's health," he said.
Senator Boxer said, "I am very pleased that Mr. Johnson has recognized the gross error in judgement the EPA made when they concocted this immoral program to test pesticides on children. The CHEERS program was a reprehensible idea that never should have made it out of the boardroom, and I am just happy that it was stopped before any children were put in harm’s way."
"I will continue to oppose policies that lead to the testing of toxins on humans," Boxer said.
Senator Nelson said, “The government should not be asking families to turn their babies into guinea pigs,” said Nelson. “They should be protecting children, not exposing them to pesticides.”
While Boxer and Nelson removed the formal block on Friday, they did not indicate whether or not they will now support Johnson's confirmation.
Johnson said in his defense that opposition to the CHEERS program was based on "misrepresentations."
"EPA senior scientists have briefed me on the impact these misrepresentations have had on the ability to proceed with the study," he said. "I have concluded that the study cannot go forward, regardless of the outcome of the independent review. EPA must conduct quality, credible research in an atmosphere absent of gross misrepresentation and controversy."
Johnson is a biologist and pathologist, and if confirmed he would be the first scientist to head the U.S. EPA.
"As a scientist and a 24 year employee of the EPA," Johnson said, "I have a deep passion for the agency's mission to protect human health and the environment. Continual review and reassessment is a fundamental aspect of scientific progress, and I am committed to ensuring that EPA's research is based on sound science with the highest ethical standards."
The CHEERS program would ask 60 area families with infants or children from nine to 12 months old to volunteer for the study. All participating families will receive up to $970 and be required to have their children exposed to pesticides through routine spraying in their homes.
While CHEERS will not go forward with EPA funding, the exact same study can proceed with private sponsors, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). "In fact, the American Chemistry Council, which represents 135 companies including pesticide manufacturers, had already pledged $2 million toward the study’s $9 million overall cost," said the organization, which represents government employees in the natural resources fields.
“The reason Stephen Johnson clung so stubbornly to this creepy CHEERS effort is that it served as the beacon to industry that EPA would welcome similar experiments,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, an attorney.
Ruch commented that "the pesticide industry wants to use human testing to trump animal studies so as to justify relaxed exposure limits."
“Stephen Johnson has become the pesticide industry’s go-to-guy at EPA," Ruch said.
During his confirmation hearing, Johnson claimed that the Centers for Disease Control had approved CHEERS. But, according to a January 18, 2005 letter from EPA to Representative Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat, that agency had not reviewed it.
In a February notice published in the Federal Register, the EPA said that experiments that intentionally dose human subjects with pesticides and other chemicals will be evaluated and approved by the agency in a "wide open case-by-case" manner.
The EPA is seeking public comment on this case-by-case method of considering experiments that involve human subjects in a notice dated February 2 and signed by Susan Hazen, acting assistant administrator in the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances.
The guidelines proposed by the agency are all voluntary and non-binding upon the experimenters, the EPA or the public.
There are no legally binding regulations on the intentional dosing of pregnant women with chemicals for experiments.
The notice defers adopting legally binding protections for infants, fetuses, pregnant women, and prisoners that apply to all medical and drug testing overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Instead, EPA announces that it "indends to publish a proposed rule” at some time in the future.
The EPA says it "may propose to adopt some or all of the HHS regulations that provide additional protections for certain populations of vulnerable subjects." This proposal "may" require a sponsor or investigator to provide the protocol for the human studies to the EPA for prior review and approval.
In the notice, the EPA says its overall goals are, "That human participants in any research required by, conducted for, or considered by EPA are treated ethically; and that all scientifically sound data relevant to EPA decision-making is considered and used appropriately in reaching decisions under our authorities."
According to the EPA, 73,000 U.S. children were involved in poisonings with common household pesticides in the year 2000.
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