The Environmental Protection Agency for the first time will require pesticide manufacturers to test 67 chemicals contained in their products to determine whether they disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates animals' and humans' growth, metabolism and reproduction, the agency said yesterday.
Researchers have raised concerns that chemicals released into the environment interfere with animals' hormone systems, citing problems such as male fish in the Potomac River that are bearing eggs. Known as endocrine disruptors, the chemicals may affect the hormones that humans and animals produce or secrete.
"Endocrine disruptors can cause lifelong health problems, especially for children," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a statement. "Gathering this information will help us work with communities and industry to protect Americans from harmful exposure."
Testing will begin this summer and will focus on whether these chemicals affect estrogen, androgen and thyroid systems. The tests eventually will encompass all pesticide chemicals.
Pesticide industry officials said they had anticipated the move, which was set into motion in 1996 by the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act, and they planned to cooperate on the matter.
"It's been a long time coming," said Jay Vroom, president and chief executive of CropLife America, a major trade association. "For pesticides, we think the likelihood is extremely low we'll have any concerns come to the surface."
Just this month, the EPA rejected a petition from CropLife America that would have changed aspects of the agency's Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program in an effort to reduce the costs and time requirements associated with the new testing. But Vroom said the EPA indicated in its April 3 letter that it would take into account several industry concerns, including leaving open the possibility of sometimes using computer modeling rather than relying exclusively on laboratory animal testing.
"That's an encouraging sign," he said, adding that it appeared the agency would be willing to lower the number of lab animals required for testing.
Linda Birnbaum, who directs the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, said the program represents "a more organized way to look at" how human exposure to pesticide chemicals could affect such things as bone growth and brain development.
"This is a good beginning," Birnbaum said, adding that scientists need to examine how different hormone disruptors might interact or accumulate in the human body. "It's very important to know: Can certain chemicals, especially chemicals that are out there that people are exposed to, impact our hormone system?"
Although researchers have observed the most visible effects of these chemicals in animals, Birnbaum said it is likely that some humans, depending on their particular sensitivity, could experience similar problems.
"I think it's unrealistic that humans are going to be immune," she said, adding that the studies need to determine dosage, "how much of these chemicals do you need for cause and effect?"
Linda Phillips, who manages the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program, said that it will take about two years to obtain data from the two-tier program, and that it then could take the agency another year to make a final determination about the chemicals' effect on hormone disruption.
Vroom said pesticide manufacturers are "very confident our products will come through with flying colors." He added: "If we do learn something about our products that raises a cause for concern, our industry will be at the table, ready and willing to step forward and take action to mitigate risk."