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Attack of the Killer Weeds

Tuesday, December 14, 1999

Attack of the Killer Weeds

Pesticide Hypocrisy on Capitol Hill

Section 18 of the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act allows the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to grant "emergency" and "crisis" exemptions from pesticide health and safety standards for farmers facing sudden and potentially catastrophic pest infestations. By definition, granting these exemptions is a hurried procedure, accompanied by less than a full scientific study of the health risks of using the pesticide. The program, historically fraught with abuses, has been roundly criticized for granting repeated exemptions in response to ill-defined emergencies by at least three Congressional and General Accounting Office investigations (GAO 1978, GAO 1981, Guerrero 1991). The GAO raised specific concerns about granting exemptions for pesticides in the absence of a complete understanding of these chemicals’ effects on human health and the environment.

The 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) was in part intended to bring more accountability to the exemption process. Since FQPA’s passage, however, pesticide lobbyists and their allies in Congress have fought hard to increase the number of Section 18 exemptions, while at the same time blocking implementation of the tough children’s health protections in the Act. By spending millions on an aggressive lobbying and misinformation campaign, these efforts have been largely successful.

After three years spent reviewing over 3,000 studies – nearly all authored by pesticide companies Kempter 1999) – the EPA has yet to implement the full children’s health requirements of FQPA for even one of the approximately 300 pesticides that are used in more than 20,000 pesticide products. At the same time Section 18 exemptions nearly doubled, from an average of about 300 per year for the three years prior to the Act, to 573 in 1998 (Figure 1). Many of these exemptions are granted year after year and arise from such "emergencies" as an outbreak of weeds.

Figure 1. The number of Section 18 exemptions granted has nearly doubled since FQPA was passed
chart of exemptions granted
Source: Environmental Working Group. Compiled from U.S. EPA data.

Since the unanimous passage of FQPA, Section 18 has become little more than a loophole through which pesticide companies market their products while avoiding the children’s health and safety requirements of the law.

Congressional Hypocrisy

Now, 225 members of Congress have co-sponsored legislation written by the pesticide industry that would broaden Section 18 loopholes and further delay children’s health protections mandated by the FQPA.

These legislators claim that their support for HR1592 and S1464 is based on a concern for "sound science". Yet for these politicians, "sound science" is a reflexive sound bite meant to debunk all environmental safeguards that industry opposes—in this case pesticide reforms-even in the face of overwhelming evidence that children are at risk.

EWG's analysis of EPA records shows that these lawmakers express no concerns about sound science when it comes to putting more pesticides on the market in the absence of full safety tests. Fifty-three (53) of these co-sponsors have directly pressured the EPA to grant Section 18 exemptions for pesticides, often on foods heavily consumed by children, even though these pesticides are being used without the most rudimentary requirement of sound science: a complete, thoroughly reviewed set of health and safety data.

The Influence of Money

The congressional double standard on pesticide safety makes sense in one context: campaign contributions. Nearly all of these 53 representatives and senators have taken significant amounts of re-election money from the pesticide and agribusiness coalition that actually wrote HR1592 and S1464, the so-called Implementation Working Group-IWG (Table 1). On average, during the two most recent election cycles, these 53 members of Congress received on average nearly four times more money from IWG member PACs ($10,301) than members of Congress who have neither supported Section 18 exemptions nor cosponsored this legislation ($2,693).

Exemptions Put Children at Risk

FQPA was supposed to increase children’s health protections in part by tightening restrictions governing emergency and crisis exemptions from pesticide safeguards. Instead, exemptions for pesticides used on children's food increased steadily since the passage of the Act. This profligate use of the Section 18 program puts children at risk.

In the three years immediately prior to the passage of the Act, from August 1, 1993 through July 31, 1996, the EPA granted an average of 163 exemptions per year for fruits and vegetables heavily consumed by children (Table 2). In the equivalent three-year period after the passage of FQPA, EPA granted 241 exemptions per year for these same foods, an increase of nearly 50 percent. By definition, none of these Section 18 exemptions are fully evaluated for their health risks to children. Strawberries, apples, and potatoes — crops that already deliver relatively high pesticide doses to children –-have been granted an average of 103 pesticide exemptions each year since August 1, 1996, compared to 61 per year in the three years prior to the Act.

Many pesticides granted exemptions are extremely toxic. Some are considered probable human carcinogens by the U.S. EPA, others are potent neurotoxicants that can damage the fragile developing nervous systems of children. Many have been used year after year for the same "emergency," while the manufacturers have postponed the scientific scrutiny that full government registration would entail.

Abuses of the Program: Chronic Emergencies

Our analysis of EPA records revealed 90 situations where states requested Section 18 exemptions to use the same pesticide on the same crop in at least five of the last seven years. Sixty-six (73 percent) of these requests were granted. Twelve of these "emergencies" lasted seven years in a row, 17 were for six of seven years, and 61 were for five of the last seven years. The enactment of FQPA accelerated this trend. States have applied 144 times for the same exemption during the three years since FQPA was passed.

Another commonly abused provision is the "crisis" exemption, which allows states to authorize the use of pesticides for two weeks with no EPA review at all. Since 1993 the number of crisis exemptions issued per year has risen by 160 percent, from 51 to 133. This trend also accelerated after FQPA was passed (Figure 2). EPA granted 225 crisis exemptions from August 1, 1993 to the July 31, 1999 for 59 different pesticides sprayed on 32 fruits and vegetables heavily consumed by children. Twice as many were granted after FQPA was passed (155), as before (70).

Figure 2. The number of Section 18 "crisis" exemptions granted increased sharply after FQPA was passed in 1996.
number of crisis examptions granted chart
Source: Environmental Working Group. Compiled from U.S. EPA data.

Crisis exemptions vividly demonstrate the vague criteria for an emergency or a crisis. More than one-quarter of all "crisis" exemptions each year are for control of weeds.

Conclusions and Recommendations

After successfully halting the delivery of the benefits of the FQPA to the public, pesticide lobbyists are now going farther. They have authored and won support for a bill to effectively roll back the law altogether. This bill would delay children’s health protections and broaden loopholes for exemptions from these rules. All this in the name of "sound science."

There is no such concern about "sound science" when it comes to the accelerated abuses of the Section 18 program - a program that by its definition avoids rigorous, sound scientific examination of pesticide use. The program today is a well greased escape chute through which pesticide companies avoid the full children's health requirements of current law. Children bear the risk of the untested pesticides, while pesticide companies reap the profits. Nothing better illustrates the phony essence of the program than the surge in emergency and crisis exemptions granted for control of weeds.

The EPA has put itself in a downward spiral where each emergency exemption helps to create the need for future ones. As a first step toward reform, EPA must resist pressure from the pesticide lobby and its allies and reign in its impulse to grant 'emergency' exemptions. In the words of former congressman James Scheuer, EPA must stop "rolling over dead in the face of these repetitive, painfully repetitive, predictable applications" (Scheuer 1992).

To close the Section 18 loophole without denying farmers a legitimate emergency exemption process, EPA needs to:

  • Develop core minimum health and safety data requirements for pesticides granted Section 18 exemptions. FQPA requires an affirmative finding that Section 18 exemptions are safe for infants and children. EPA cannot make this finding without a core set of health and safety studies on the pesticides receiving the exemptions; including, at a minimum, studies on acute, subchronic and chronic toxicity, developmental and reproductive toxicity, carcinogenicity, developmental neurotoxicity, metabolism and residue levels on treated crops.
  • Require manufacturers to monitor residue levels of Section 18 compounds on treated food, particularly food consumed by children. Many of the pesticides receiving Section 18 exemptions are based on sophisticated chemistry that is not detectable by FDA's commonly-used analytical methods. Indeed, the FDA has never tested any food for many of the Section 18 compounds that EWG examined. The government cannot guarantee the safety of children in the complete absence of inspections.
  • Stop approving the same emergency exemptions year after year. Agency regulations require that exemptions be denied after three consecutive years if a pesticide company is not making progress toward registration of the pesticide. These regulations need to be enforced. The agency must notify every manufacturer of a pesticide granted a Section 18 exemption two years in a row, that the third year will be denied unless the company commits to the studies needed to secure a full registration of the compound.
  • Crack down on states' frequent use of exemptions. The EPA should audit the states' exemption evaluation processes and revoke a state's authority to certify "emergencies" and "crises" if that state files exemptions for situations that don't truly threaten farmers.
  • Apply the additional FQPA children's tenfold safety factor to all Section 18 tolerances. By definition Section 18 pesticide uses lack the data required to make a determination of safety to infants and children, and thus must receive the additional tenfold factor required by law.
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