IF YOU'RE worried that the stuff you spray around your garden or kitchen might be killing something other than bugs and germs, you might want to pay some attention to the reauthorization of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (the ultimate government acronym: FIFRA-- just try to say it). Amendments being recommended by the House Agriculture Committee could give you additional reason for concern.
At the urging of the chemical industry, the committee would make it much harder for states to set more stringent controls on pesticide use than those set by the federal government. Until now, FIFRA policy has followed the general pattern of other health, safety and environment legislation--federal law sets minimum standards, but also allows states to set stricter requirements if they see fit.
Few states have seen the need--or been willing to devote the substantial resources--to go beyond the minimum standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency for registering pesticide products. A notable exception is California, which set up a full- scale review process a few years ago and rapidly built up a large backlog of unprocessed registrations. Chemical manufacturers were understandably irked by long delays. They were also bothered by California's requests for expensive additional data on product safety and usefulness--although such requests were made in only a small percentage of cases.
Businesses can go to court to contest state actions that seem arbitrary or capricious or greatly disrupt the flow of interstate commerce. But lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming, and the industry wants Congress to require states to process registrations promptly and get EPA approval for requests for additional data on products--other than agricultural products of specific local concern.
California admits that, until it recently increased staff and simplified the review process, its program was inefficient. But the state also points to many cases in which it--and other states--have been well ahead of EPA in pointing out substantial public health hazards. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and a broad array of health, environmental and labor groups also question the wisdom of restricting state initiative in an area of traditional concern. The administration opposes the idea not only because EPA already has too much to do, but also because the new restrictions would be so clear a contradiction of its emphasis on giving states more control over their affairs.
There are good reasons not to build unneeded bureaucratic obstacles to prompt review of new chemical products; many of them may be both more efficacious and safer than the ones they replace. But the people of a state also have the right to insist on higher standards in matters that concern them. If the California government opts for an overzealous approach, citizens of the state will pay the price of worm-ridden gardens and germ-infested toilet bowls--and they will surely take their case to the state legislature. And there--not in Congress--is where the matter belongs.