How Tough on Pesticides?

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
May 27, 1998

Pesticide policy in this country is founded on a contradiction. The government says simultaneously that pesticide residues are dangerous and the food supply is safe. The contradiction has helped produce a 25-year string of broken promises. Crackdowns on pesticide use have frequently been promised but have never materialized.

A new report documents the latest example. In 1993, the new Clinton administration announced a pesticide initiative. The report, by the Environmental Working Group here, reprinted what officials said about it. "Very significant commitment," a "dramatic shift in the government's approach," said environmental protection Administrator Carol Browner. "Landmark in the history of food safety," "watershed in the history of pesticide use," said former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler.

But the results, the report says, on the strength of the government's own annual surveys of pesticide residues, together with the record of enforcement, have been slim to nil. The residue levels are essentially unchanged. The findings of the report were disputed when it was released last week, but only on the margin. The report seems true.

It is also timely. In 1996 the last Congress surprised and to some extent confounded its critics by passing an important reform of pesticide legislation. The bill enacted a compromise that had eluded environmental groups on the one hand, the chemical industry and agriculture associations on the other, for years. An administration enforcement decision helped bring the industry to the table. The bill modernized the safety standard in the law, set still another enforcement timetable and included a special standard for children and other groups thought to be more vulnerable to the chemicals.

Now, however, the new law itself is facing a test -- what to do about a certain set of chemicals -- and the administration, in the person of Vice President Gore, has seemed to wobble a little. He issued a statement not long ago suggesting the administration might be prepared to accommodate the industry, which wants enforcement to go slow. Aides deny that's what he had in mind, and of course we'll see. The report is a reminder of the context in which the decision will be made.

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