EPA postpones child pesticide study

Agency seeks external review

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has decided to delay the start of a controversial effort to study the effect of pesticides on children after some agency officials raised concerns about its recruitment procedures.

The Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS) was planned as a cooperative effort between the EPA and the chemical industry trade group the American Chemistry Council (ACC). As originally conceived, the two-year study would follow 60 children in Duval County, FL, ages 3 years and younger, to determine how children come into contact with pesticides and chemicals in the home.

According to an ACC press release announcing the study last October, families would be asked to keep records of their pesticide and household product use, with researchers following up to monitor the children. The study is designed to measure the concentrations of the chemicals in the children’s homes and determine how the children are exposed to chemicals that are present in the consumer products used.

However, an Oct. 30, 2004, report in The Washington Post made public several internal e-mails between EPA staff members expressing concern that the study’s recruitment procedures would entice low-income families to put their children at risk to participate.1

In exchange for participating in the study, the Post reported, families who used pesticides in the home would receive $970, some children’s clothing, and a camcorder that the parents could keep.

In internal e-mails obtained by the newspaper, EPA officials not affiliated with the project questioned why the agency would encourage some parents to continue to use pesticides in the home when such chemicals have been linked to lung and neurological problems.

EPA officials responded that the study would involve adequate education for the parents about the risks of pesticide exposure and that they would be informed if their children’s urine samples showed abnormally high levels of pesticides.

Families could remain in the study even if they stop using pesticides, the agency said, as long as they were using them before the project started.

However, the study also took fire from outside sources, many of whom questioned the federal agency’s acceptance of a $2 million grant from the ACC to help fund the research, the key role the trade group would have in designing the study, and concerns that the ACCE might be able to influence public dissemination of the research results.

"Instead of assigning a qualified team of independent scientists to gather this information using government funds, your agency has instead accepted industry funding and guidance from the makers of the very chemicals in question," wrote Kenneth A. Cook, president of the nonprofit advocacy organization Environmental Working Group.2

The Organic Consumers Association pointed out that the EPA and the ACC have data showing that many of the chemicals to be studied in CHEERS are harmful, but that those studies are of incremental exposures over time. The short duration of the CHEERS project will not reliably detect the effects of exposures, it claims.3

The agency does not intend the study to provide concrete data on the effects of exposure — since long-term exposure has been demonstrated to be harmful — but that the agency and chemical industry want to understand the mechanism of exposure in order to develop safer methods of pesticide manufacture and use, says William McFarland, PhD, the EPA’s acting deputy assistant administrator for science in its Office of Research and Development.

"CHEERS is designed to fill critical data gaps in our understanding of children’s exposure to pesticides and other chemicals commonly used in the home," he stated in a Nov. 8 memo to employees that has been posted on the EPA web site. "Recent news articles have mischaracterized the study, and EPA is actively working to assure all interested parties that the study is designed to meet rigorous ethical and scientific standards."

To that end, the agency is sending the study protocol for another external, independent review, this time by an expert panel made up of members of the federal Science Advisory Board, the Science Advisory Panel, and the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee. It is anticipated that this review will be completed, and that a report will be forwarded to the EPA administrator, in the spring of 2005. Based on this review, the agency may refine the study design, McFarland reports.

The study design for CHEERS already has been externally reviewed for scientific merit and ethical protections by four separate IRBs, he noted. The IRBs and the dates they approved the study are: Battelle Memorial Institute (August 2004), University of North Carolina (September 2004), Florida Department of Health (pending approval), and University of Florida (May 2004).

More information about the CHEERS trial is available on the web at www.epa.gov/cheers.

References

1. Eilperin J. Study of pesticides and children stirs protests. The Washington Post. Oct. 30, 2004. Page A02.

2. Cook K. Letter to the EPA. Oct. 15, 2004. Accessed on-line at: www.ewg.org/issues/humantesting/20041029/letter_20041015.php.

3. Organic Consumer Association. EPA & Chemical Industry to Study Effects of Known Toxic Chemicals on Children: Question & Answer. Available on-line at: www.organicconsumers.org/epa-alert.htm.