The Front

Delivering on Delaney

THE U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY (EPA) will begin phasing out uses of 36 cancer-causing pesticides which have been allowed as residues in juices, canned fruits and vegetables, cooking oil and other processed foods, if an October 12, 1994 proposed settlement agreement is approved.

The agreement resolves a 1989 lawsuit against EPA brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the State of California, AFL-CIO, Public Citizen, and a California farmworker. The suit alleged that EPA routinely allows residues of cancer-causing pesticides in numerous processed foods, in violation of the Delaney Clause of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which prohibits additives in processed foods that "induce cancer in man or animal."

"This settlement is great news for consumers, farmers and the environment," says Jennifer Curtis, NRDC senior research associate. "People should be able to eat food without poisons, farmers and farm workers should be able to grow food without being exposed to dangerous chemicals, and the environment and wildlife should not be haunted by the toxins we use."

 The 36 pesticides are some of the most widely used on the market. Among them are: alachlor, an herbicide used on soybeans and peanuts; benomyl, a fungicide used on apples, citrus, grapes, rice and tomatoes; captan, a fungicide used on grapes, plums and tomatoes; and dicofol, an insecticide used on many types of fruits and vegetables. The settlement also calls for EPA to review within five years an additional 49 carcinogenic pesticides that will be eliminated if they are found in processed foods at higher concentrations than raw food.

 The agreement will be submitted for approval to the U.S. District Court in Sacramento at a hearing in late-fall 1994. Prior to the hearing, industry groups will have an opportunity to comment on the settlement.

 "NRDC seeks to force EPA to pursue the Delaney Clause to its irrational, illogical extreme," says Juanita Duggan, senior vice president for government affairs for the National Food Processors Association (NFPA), the largest U.S. food trade association. "EPA has stated that the pesticides at issue are safe."

 Without commenting directly on the settlement, Jay Vroom, president of the American Crop Protection Association (ACPA), which represents pesticide manufacturers, criticized NRDC for "appear[ing] to wish to create a national food scare."

 "These pesticides have long been identified as carcinogenic," responds Laurie Mott, senior scientist at NRDC. "Our intention is to get the government to follow the law."

 Industry groups detest the Delaney Clause because of its zero-tolerance principle, and have lobbied Congress heavily to abolish it. They prefer a "risk assessment" model to the uncompromising Delaney Clause. Risk assessment would allow residues that expose consumers to a "minimal" risk - a hypothetical increased risk of one cancer death in one million.

 The risk assessment model has been sharply criticized by environmentalists. They argue that in its narrow focus on single pesticides, the model ignores the cumulative risk of multiple pesticides that may be used on a single food. The model also overlooks the potential interactive effects of multiple pesticides being used. They also charge that risk assessment ignores certain high-risk populations - young children, the elderly and disabled, for example.

"A risk assessment is like a captured spy," former EPA Chief Administrator William Ruckelshaus once said. "Torture it enough and it will tell you anything."

In comparing the Delaney Clause mechanism to the risk assessment model, NRDCs Mott notes, "the Delaney Clause is the only statutory handle that bars exposure to carcinogens. Any level of cancer that can be avoided should be."

 But NFPAs Duggan disagrees. "Regardless of the outcome of this settlement," he warns, "NFPA will continue to urge Congress to replace the Delaney Clause with science-based legislation that recognizes there is no such thing as zero risk."


- Aaron Freeman