AS NEW FARMING and gardening season begins, questions about various pesticides are bound to crop up again. If the 1972 federal control law has worked well, most dangerous pesticides would have been restricted or removed from the marketplace by now. That hasn't happened. The Environmental Protection Agency has curbed DDT, aldrin, heptachlor and other acutely toxic chemicals. But its review of of over 30,000 existing pesticides may not be finished for years. The agency is too bogged down to control many compounds that are suspect - or to approve those that seem safe for specific uses. In short, nobody is being well served.
What went wrong? The program was poorly managed until recently. Congress erred, too, by underestimating the regulatory complexities and not giving EPA sufficient resources for the job.
COngress is trying to recoup. Legislation in Senate House conference would let EPA approve some pesticides conditionally before all health questions have been resolved. If used with care, that is a resonable way to break the regulatory logjam. The conferees could also speed things up by allowing EPA to assess the basic chemical ingredients of pesticides instead of studying each mixture separately.
Congress should not, however, "streamline" the program by removing its safeguards. One of those is EPA's oversight of the states' regulatory programs and decisions. EPA has not abused its authority; if anything, the agency has not been tough enough. Still, the House wants to give states more autonomy. The Senate conferees should resist. The EPA program was set up, after all, partly because many state efforts were lax. Bolstering the federal program is the best way to give growers, workers and consumers everywhere more confidence that the pesticides they, encounter will not destroy their health.