THE DISCOVERY that the pesticide dibromochloropropane, DBCP, which causes cancer in animals, may have caused sterility in at least 60 male chemical workers in two plants that produce it, has prompted another round of after-the-fact efforts by the federal government to determine quickly just how dangerous a controversial pesticide is to humans. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is drafting temporary emergency standards limiting worker exposure to DBCP. OHSA has also asked producers of the pesticide to reduce the amount of DBCP in the air around workers to the lowest possible concentration. This request seems more symbolic than anything else since Dow Chemical Co. and Shell Oil Co., the only two domestic producers, already had stopped its manufacture for the time being. The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are investigating whether vegetables grown in soil treated with the pesticide pose any health hazard. And they are also examining a closely related pesticide, EDB, which may be even more dangerous.
The government's quick action, commendable as it is, has come too late to prevent the anguish suffered by the plant workers.But that yet another pesticide has been found to be potentially harmful to humans in this grim way should surprise no one. Federal efforts to review pesticides and impse standards on their manufacture and use have been woefully inadequate. For example, the possible dangers to humans of both DBCP and EDB were noted previously, but the federal agencies either ignored the reports or didn't know they existed. Nor was this oversight unique. Only a relative few of the more than 30>000 pesticide in use have been reviewed in a way that complies with current federal regulations. Cumber-some bureaucratic procedures, clumsily written laws and a lack of adequate staff are some of the reasons for this week federal-detention effort. As OHSA director Eula Bingham said this week regarding DBCP, "I'm not surprised this happened. And it may happen time and time again until we do something about it."
Part of the "something" necessary to reduce the frequency with which these incidents occur is congressional support of the agencies' need for highly trained staff to conduct these reviews. Another part is more realistic laws that embody directions and instructions that executive agencies can actually follow. Last month the Senate passed amendments to the pesticide laws EPA officials say would improve their ability in this area. The House will take up the amendments next month. Though some of these amendments may need revision, their overall thrust is toward a more efficient federal scrutiny of pesticides - before they cause harm to people. That's movement in the right direction.