E.P.A. Nominee Supports Testing of Pesticides
on Human Subjects
March 12, 2005
By Gene C. Gerard
Bush recently nominated Stephen L. Johnson, a 24-year veteran of
the Environmental Protection Agency, to be the agency’s new administrator.
Mr. Johnson has been the acting administrator since January, and
prior to that oversaw the EPA office handling pesticides and other
toxic substances. In nominating Johnson, Mr. Bush described him
as “a talented scientist” and having “good judgment and complete
Yet his record as the Assistant Administrator for Toxic Substances
casts serious doubt on whether he is suited to lead the E.P.A.,
an agency directly affecting Americans’ health and many significant
industries, including automobiles and agriculture. During President
Bush’s first term, Johnson was a strong supporter of pesticide testing
During President Clinton’s administration, the E.P.A. would not
consider the results of controversial trials that tested pesticides
on people. But after Mr. Bush was elected, Johnson changed the policy
to permit consideration, saying, “We are willing to consider that
such studies can be useful.” However, a panel of scientists and
ethicists convened by the E.P.A. in 1998 determined that these types
of trials were unethical and scientifically unsuitable to estimate
the safety of chemicals.
In 2001, the trials considered by the agency gave paid subjects
doses of pesticides hundreds of times greater than levels that E.P.A.
officials considered safe for the general public. The agency evaluated
three studies that year from Dow Chemicals, Bayer Corporation, and
the Gowan Company. The Bayer and Gowan studies were conducted in
third-world countries, where volunteers were more readily available,
while Dow conducted their study in Nebraska.
In the Dow study, human subjects were given doses four times the
level that the E.P.A. knew produced adverse affects in animals.
Subjects suffered numbness, headaches, nausea, vomiting and stomach
cramps. Dow’s doctors determined that these symptoms were “possibly”
or “probably” related to the chemical. But in the final analysis
of the study, Dow concluded that the pesticide did not produce any
symptoms. And the E.P.A. accepted it.
It’s wasn’t surprising then that in October of last year, Johnson
strongly supported a study in which infants will be monitored for
health impacts as they undergo exposure to toxic chemicals for a
two-year period. The Children’s Environmental Exposure Research
Study (CHEERS), will analyze how chemicals can be ingested, inhaled,
or absorbed by children ranging from infants to three year olds.
The study will analyze 60 children in Duval County, Florida who
are routinely exposed to pesticides in their homes. Yet the E.P.A.
acknowledges that pesticide exposure is a risk factor for childhood
cancer and the early onset of asthma.
Other aspects of CHEERS are equally troublesome. The participants
will be selected from six health clinics and three hospitals in
Duval County. The E.P.A. study proposal noted, “Although all Duval
County citizens are eligible to use the [health care] centers, they
primarily serve individuals with lower incomes. In the year 2000,
75 percent of the users of the clinics for pregnancy issues were
at or below the poverty level.” The proposal also cited that “The
percentage of births to individuals classified as black in the U.S.
Census is higher at these three hospitals than for the County as
The E.P.A. is targeting the poor and African-Americans for the
study, presumably in the hope that they will be less informed about
the dangers of exposing their children to pesticides, and will therefore
continue to expose them over the two-year period. The study actually
mandates that parents not be provided information about the proper
ways to apply or store pesticides around the home. And the parents
cannot be informed of the risks of prolonged or excessive exposure
to pesticides. Additionally, the study does not provide guidelines
to intervene if the children show signs of developmental delay or
register dangerous levels of pesticide exposure in the periodic
Parents receive $970 for participating, but only if they continue
over the two-year period. This is a powerful inducement for these
impoverished parents to keep exposing their children to pesticides.
Even some E.P.A. officials have been troubled by the lack of safeguards
to ensure that these parents are not swayed into exposing their
children to the chemicals. Troy Pierce, a scientist in the E.P.A.’s
Atlanta based pesticides office, wrote to his colleagues last year
via 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.”
Additionally, it was disclosed that the American Chemistry Council
gave $2.1 million to the E.P.A. to fund CHEERS. The council is comprised
of many pesticide manufacturers. These manufacturers have known
since the 1970s of the long-term toxicity of the pesticides being
tested in the study. But since this study only lasts two years,
there will likely be little or no obvious short-term effects. Consequently,
this will allow the council to proclaim that the E.P.A. found no
side effects, and in turn allow it to lobby Congress to weaken regulations
on these chemicals.
Stephen L. Johnson’s strong support of pesticide testing on humans
is morally and scientifically reprehensible. The testing provides
no health benefit to the subjects, or to society at large. But it
does help chemical companies who claim that their products are not
dangerous. And this is not the type of help that the future head
of the E.P.A. should be giving.
Gene C. Gerard teaches American history at a small college in suburban
Dallas and is a contributing author to the forthcoming book "Americans
at War," to be published by Greenwood Press. His previous articles
have appeared in The Free Press, Political Affairs Magazine, Dissident
Voice, Intervention Magazine, The Modern Tribune, and The Palestine