Editorial: Defend Delaney

WITH U.S. PESTICIDE STANDARDS mired in a complex web of contradictory, poorly enforced and inadequate regulations, an overhaul of the pesticide regulatory system is long overdue. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration's attempt to address the problem in its new pesticide reform package is earning plaudits from the pesticide industry, not from environmentalists and consumer advocates.

 The reason: while the package contains a number of progressive reforms designed to tighten up the regulatory procedure and lower the overall use of pesticides in the United States, the package would abolish the Delaney Clause, the federal law which prohibits the use of cancer-causing pesticides that concentrate in processed foods.

 The pesticide reform package is the Clinton administration's latest attempt - following its compromise efforts concerning logging in the Pacific Northwest and wetland preservation in Florida's Everglades - to resolve industry-environmentalist conflicts. In exchange for proposing a prohibition on the export of pesticides canceled in the United States for health or safety reasons, an easing of the level of proof necessary to force cancellation of unsafe pesticides and other environmentally-sound measures, the administration would wipe the Delaney Clause off the books. This is too high a price to pay for the positive elements of the administration's package.

 One indication of who is getting the better end of the deal is the fact that the administration's proposal has garnered the support of the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, the pesticide industry trade group.

The pesticide industry despises the Delaney Clause, which was adopted in 1958, for the very reasons consumer advocates and environmentalists applaud it: it is an inflexible rule that leaves little room for political lobbying, scientific wrangling or legal challenges over specific regulatory decisions. Industry argues that technical advancements in the ability to measure small amounts of pesticide residues make the Delaney Clause anachronistic; when it was passed in 1958, scientists could only measure parts per million, but now they can monitor parts per trillion, so much smaller residues can be detected than the Delaney Clause authors could have imagined. The risks of cancer from very small residues, on the order of a few parts per trillion, is negligible, pesticide manufacturers argue, while the costs of banning pesticides on the basis of those small residues are enormous.

 The latest round of pesticide industry attacks on the Delaney Clause came earlier this year after the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a Court of Appeals decision requiring the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the explicit terms of the Delaney Clause, rather than an interpretation developed under the Reagan administration which held low risks of carcinogenicity (deemed "negligible" or "trivial") to be the equivalent of no risk.

 The Clinton administration proposal would essentially make the Reagan position the law: pesticide residues which are estimated to present a cancer risk of one in a million will be permitted. That is a level of risk society can accept, the argument goes, in exchange for the benefits of pesticides.

 But the risk-assessment model on which this determination rests is fundamentally flawed. First, the government's pesticide standards purport to assess the risk for each pesticide, but they do not account for consumers' aggregate exposure to the range of pesticides in use: from eating foods with more than one pesticide on them (11 cancer- causing pesticides are registered for use on apples alone); from eating more than one food containing pesticide residues; and through non-food exposures to the same pesticides which are widely used in lawncare. Second, the risk models, because they rely on broad age categories, do not adequately account for the vulnerabilities of infants and young children, who a recent National Academy of Science report found are especially sensitive to pesticide-related health risks. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the risk models' use of extraordinarily precise figures lend the practice of risk-assessment an air of scientific certainty that the theories do not warrant. In fact, scientists do not fully understand cancer's causal mechanisms, and their techniques for estimating carcinogenicity are very crude, with different assumptions and models yielding vastly different results.

 Perhaps the most disturbing element of the Clinton proposal is the way in which it undercuts the core Delaney Clause principles of erring on the side of safety in the face of scientific uncertainty and of preventing, rather than just regulating , carcinogenic exposures. Whether these twin principles of precaution and prevention will be preserved or eroded has far-reaching implications.

 Cancer now strikes one in three people in the United States and kills one in four. Citing these statistics the chemical industry argues that an additional one-in-a-million chance of getting cancer is too small to worry about.

 Proponents of the Delaney Clause take a much more thoughtful and practical view, however. They argue that the rapidly rising incidence of cancer is precisely the reason that all unnecessary and preventable exposures should be eliminated. This argument is all the more forceful when it is combined with recognition of the uncertainties surrounding cancer causation, the synergistic effects of exposure to multiple carcinogens and the environmental effects of extensive pesticide use.

 In a society where fascination with technological innovation often crowds out sober realities about safety, environmental and social effects of new technologies and products, the role of prevention and precautionary principles is critical. Where these principles are embedded in law, they must be protected and preserved, not sacrificed for reasons of political expediency.