The news that David Bernhardt, President Trump’s Interior Secretary nominee, blocked a federal report on the risks certain pesticides pose to hundreds of endangered species has enraged scientists and environmental groups.
But as infuriating as the Trump administration’s favoritism toward the pesticide industry may be, it’s actually nothing new. Since the dawn of the modern pesticide era during World War II, federal regulators in administrations from both major parties have adopted lax, pro-industry standards that have allowed potentially dangerous pesticides to remain legal.
World War II led to an explosion of synthetic pesticides that were cheap, easily manufactured and highly profitable for chemical companies, which raked in $40 million in pesticide sales per year at the war’s start and $260 million over a decade later. Some of the new pesticides were astonishingly powerful: A single drop of Tepp could kill a mouse instantly. Others seemed incredibly safe. A naked man could sit with his back against the DDT-coated wall of a heated steel chamber for four days and emerge, allegedly, with no serious lasting effects. (We know this because one scientist found some “volunteers” to do just that.)
The power and number of the new pesticides called for a new federal law to regulate their use. The old law, dating to 1910, required little of pesticide makers. They simply had to label their products accurately, and it had been laxly enforced by the federal Bureau of Chemistry. The result was that all too often, unwitting shoppers took home apples, asparagus, cabbage, pears, spinach, broccoli, celery and more with levels of arsenic and lead that could — and did — sicken and kill.
The postwar pesticide law drafted in 1947 was intended to halt such tragedies as it guided farmers through the landscape of new pesticides. But industry representatives played a crucial role in drafting the legislation, and it once again did far too little to protect the public. The new law required pesticide labels to include ingredients and directions, and information about antidotes in the case of serious “poisons,” as pesticides were then called. It also required that pesticides resembling salt, sugar or flour be dyed another color, “to lessen the chance of housewives putting bug instead of baking powder into their biscuits,” as the Associated Press wryly put it.
But the law elided a crucial question: What, exactly, constituted a poison? It depended on what kind of scientist you asked.
For scientists with the Public Health Service, poisons were chemicals that caused immediate harm, which you could document by observing men who worked with chemicals in factories and fields. Food and Drug Administration scientists, however, took a longer view. They advocated pre-market studies in lab animals to observe the full effects of a chemical over a lifetime or generation. When FDA scientists fed DDT to dogs, for instance, they were troubled to see evidence of neurological problems, liver damage and startlingly high levels of the chemical in puppies, who got it from breast milk. PHS scientists, meanwhile, examined DDT “spray men” who ended each work day drenched in DDT, and they seemed fine.
Whose science to rely on? The USDA, now in charge of pesticide oversight, chose the latter, which suited pesticide makers just fine.
With few market restrictions in place, the companies ramped up production. Between 1945 and 1950, U.S. manufacturers tripled the amount of pesticides produced. By 1952, the USDA had more than 20,000 new pesticide products to keep track of. All the while, cancer rates climbed and pesticides came under suspicion.
Highly publicized hearings in the 1950s, spearheaded by New York Rep. James Delaney, led to improvements, including an amendment to the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act preventing USDA from registering any pesticides until the FDA set a “safe” residue level. As environmental scientist John Perkins pointed out decades ago, though, that was still a win for the pesticide industry, as it “legitimized” pesticide use by establishing “legal” doses.
President Richard M. Nixon’s effort to overhaul federal pesticide law in 1971 produced more meaningful change. That law required manufacturers to submit health and safety testing data for any pesticide they wanted to register, and it granted the newly established Environmental Protection Agency authority to require additional data.
This should have made a big difference. But by the end of the 1970s, the EPA’s pesticide office was drowning in a backlog of registration requests and, unable to keep up, chose to register pesticides whose applications included incomplete, unreliable and obsolete data.
This led to the creation of “conditional” registration: After 1978, companies could register new products without submitting all of the required safety and testing data. More than 16,000 pesticides have been registered for use in the United States; more than two-thirds were initially registered conditionally. Some, according to a Government Accountability Office report, have been conditionally registered for more than 20 years. One legal analysis declared this a long-standing “loophole” in federal pesticide law, one that allowed companies to circumvent the legal requirement to prove a product safe for health and the environment before selling it to the public.
One of those conditionally registered compounds was glyphosate, first brought to market in the 1970s and back in the headlines recently after a jury awarded $80 million in damages to a Northern California man who claimed the Monsanto weedkiller Roundup caused his Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. It’s the second major jury decision against the pesticide in less than a year, and more cases are pending.
Conditional registration is not the only reason glyphosate has remained on the market. EPA scientists classified it as a carcinogen back in 1985 but reversed course after six years of correspondence with Monsanto executives. In the decades that followed, the company commissioned its own science from its preferred scientists and asked federal regulators to base decisions on that science. In one instance, the EPA ceded to industry requests to remove a certain scientist from a glyphosate safety review panel.
In another, an EPA scientist promised Monsanto it would block a planned glyphosate safety review. The president whose EPA made this promise? Barack Obama.
This is our system for ensuring that pesticides are safe. They are innocent and on the market until proven guilty. Close relationships between industry and our regulatory agencies help keep them there. By the time enough independent science has produced evidence of harm, it’s far too late to reverse the damage done.
It’s no small irony that one of the pesticides in the report blocked by Bernhardt, malathion, was called out by Rachel Carson in “Silent Spring” in 1962. “The alleged ‘safety’ of malathion rests on precarious ground,” she wrote. But the real problem was that, “as often happens — this was not discovered until the chemical had been in use for several years.”
Lawmakers and regulators must adopt a harder line toward pesticides. This is not a Democratic problem or a Republican problem. It’s a long-standing American problem — one that risks the safety of our environment, our food supply and most importantly, our health.