An Environmental Protection Agency proposal to study young
children's exposure to pesticides has sparked a flurry of internal agency
protests, with several career officials questioning whether the survey will
harm vulnerable infants and toddlers.
The EPA announced this month that it was beginning a two-year
investigation, partially funded by the American Chemical Council, of how 60
children in Duval County, Fla., absorb pesticides and other household
chemicals. The chemical industry funding initially prompted some
environmentalists to question whether the study would be biased, and some rank-
and-file agency scientists are now questioning whether the plan will exploit
financially strapped families.
In exchange for participating for two years in the Children's
Environmental Exposure Research Study, which involves infants and children up
to age 3, the EPA will give each family using pesticides in their home $970,
some children's clothing and a camcorder that parents can keep.
EPA officials in states such as Georgia and Colorado sent e-mail messages
to each other last week suggesting the study lacked safeguards to ensure that
low-income families would not be swayed into exposing their children to
hazardous chemicals in exchange for money and high-tech gadgetry. Pesticide
exposure has been linked to neurological problems, lung damage and birth
Suzanne Wuerthele, the EPA's regional toxicologist in Denver, wrote to
her colleagues on Wednesday that after reviewing the project's design, she
feared poor families would not understand the dangers associated with
"It is important that EPA behaves ethically, consistently, and in a way
that engenders public health. Unless these issues are resolved, it is likely
that all three goals will be compromised, and the agency's reputation will
suffer," she wrote in an e-mail obtained by the Washington Post. "EPA
researchers will not tell participants that using pesticides always entails
some risk, and not using pesticides will reduce that risk to zero."
Troy Pierce, a life scientist in the EPA's Atlanta-based pesticides
section, wrote in a separate e-mail: "This does sound like it goes against
everything we recommend at EPA concerning use of (pesticides) related to
children. Paying families in Florida to have their homes routinely treated
with pesticides is very sad when we at EPA know that (pesticide management)
should always be used to protect children."
Linda Sheldon, acting administrator for the human exposure and
atmospheric sciences division of the EPA's Office of Research and Development,
said the agency would educate families participating in the study and inform
them if their children's urine showed risky levels of pesticides. She said it
was crucial for the agency to study small children, because so little is known
about how their bodies absorb harmful chemicals.
"We are developing the scientific building blocks that will allow us to
protect children," Sheldon said, adding that the study design was reviewed by
five independent panels of academics, officials of the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, and representatives of the Duval County Health
Families can remain in the study, even if they stop using pesticides,
Sheldon said, as long as they were using them before the experiment started.
It was unlikely that any family would volunteer for the study out of financial
need, she added, because researchers will require parents to invest time in
monitoring their children's activities and diet.
"Nobody can go into this study just for that amount of money," Sheldon
R. Alta Charo, a professor of bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at
Madison's law and medical schools who co-wrote a National Academy of Sciences
report last year on the use of pesticides for research, said EPA officials
were struggling with how to balance the need to protect the individual child's
interests against the goal of pursuing a broader scientific agenda. While she
said the agency's approach was reasonable, Charo said it does raise ethical
"Where is the line between enticement and a godfather offer" that
impoverished families would find hard to refuse? Charo said. "That is really
troubling. We make these decisions over and over in public policy. This is one
of those moments."
Several EPA officials, all of whom asked not to be identified for fear of
retaliation, also questioned why the agency removed the study design and its
recruitment flyer from the EPA's Web site once some scientists started to
complain about the project. Sheldon said the agency is rewriting how it
portrays the research.
"We removed it so we could modify it, so it would make more sense," she
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