ONCE AGAIN THE GOVERNMENT is cracking down on a dangerous pesticide - after people have been harmed. This time the substance is DBCP (dibromochloropropane), which has been linked to sterility in male workers at two chemical plants. Where will problems show up next? Nobody knows, but officials at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration acknowledge that more such incidents are bound to occur before they catch up with the thousands of hazardous substances being made and used throughout the land.
There is no shortage of laws designed to get dangerous substances out of working places, food and the environment. However, the scientific work has proved to be much harder and the regulatory process more tedious than most people anticipated. One major blow has been the mounting evidence that many tests by private laboratories have been flawed or possibly fraudulent.
As we noted recently, the pesticides program has had additional woes: poor management, chaotic records, EPA's reluctance to acknowledge its problems, and Congress's own failure to provide enough resources for the job. At the current pace, the formidable job of reviewing and controlling more than 30,000 existing pesticides - which Congress optimistically wanted done by 1976 - may not be finished for a decade or more. Meanwhile, more factory workers, farmers and consumers will be exposed to pesticides known or thought to be hazardous to their health.
The Carter administration is taking some useful initiatives. OSHA, EPA and the Food and Drug Administration are coordinating their efforts on DBCP, in accord with the general policy of cooperation announced a while ago. The administration is also seeking authority to regulate the 1,400 or so chemical building-blocks used in pesticides instead of analyzing more than 30,000 products individually.
To have any hope of catching up, however, the environmental health programs need more resources. This year EPA asked for 600 more people for its pesticides staff, but got only a fraction of that. The administration and Congress should give these programs much higher priority, even if that means diverting staff, facilities and funds from other projects. No one should promise or expect miracles; it is impossible to identify, much less eliminate, all of the hazards that a highly industrialized, technologically advanced society inflicts upon itself. But a far greater effort should be made. What is at stake, after all, is people's health - and far greater damage than that already evident may show up decades or generations from now.