For makers of pesticides, it’s both the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand, industry’s buddies in the Trump administration are doing all they can to turn a blind eye to the dangers of these toxic substances, as the New York Times reported in a blockbuster story recently. But, while the federal government is stepping back, state officials, judges and juries are stepping in to protect our families.
- Dwayne Lee Johnson, a California groundskeeper battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma cancer, won a $290 million jury verdict against Monsanto for concealing the risks of the pesticide glyphosate;
- In response to a legal challenge by Monsanto, the Fifth District Court of Appeals in California upheld California EPA’s decision to add glyphosate to the Proposition 65 list of substances that are known to cause cancer. In the future this could lead to some businesses being required to inform the public about exposures to glyphosate;
- The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement the ban on brain-toxic chlorpyrifos that the agency had proposed in 2015 and again in 2016. One of the first acts of the Trump-Pruitt EPA was to roll back the ban. The court ruled that EPA must ban U.S. sales of the pesticide and to prohibit food containing it from the U.S. market, based on EPA’s previous finding that it is particularly harmful to infants and children.
As summed up by pesticide policy expert Dr. Charles Benbrook: “The first half of August 2018 will go down in the history of pesticide use and regulation as a time marked by a remarkable combination of highly consequential developments.”
Taken together, these decisions show that chemical-intensive farming is on a losing streak as farmers and consumers reject the medical risks they face from unnecessary over-use of pesticides. Not incidentally, these pesticides are also losing the battle against the thing they are supposed to stop: weeds.
“In my mind, Monsanto’s course is leading us toward losing our credibility with the non-farm public that we know how to steward pesticides,” the local FarmPress recently wrote.
In each of these decisions, regulators or regular people had to weigh complicated scientific evidence—and competing analyses of that evidence. It’s worth examining the arguments pesticide makers such as Monsanto have made to undercut sound science as we think about the next steps for evaluating the dangers of these toxic chemicals—and what our future agriculture system should look like.
Happily, solutions are plentiful. Studies have shown that reducing the over-use of toxic agrochemicals will significantly increase soil quality and promote biodiversity, resulting in a decreased need for chemical inputs, including pesticides and fertilizers.
Epidemiology versus animal studies is not the point
For years there has been a strange and unproductive war within the science-policy world between those who favor epidemiological studies on people and those who say the best science can be done on lab rats or other animals. This is a false choice, and one that regulators at EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and in states – as well as those on juries – should avoid.
It’s worth noting that industry doesn’t have a consistent view on this. The only consistent argument Monsanto and others make is to criticize any scientific finding that finds their product is dangerous to human health or wildlife. The common denominator in all these issues is not the science, it’s the anti-science posturing of the regulated industry and their allies in Congress and the agencies.
In many cases, epidemiology, in which human populations are studied, may be better at identifying subtle neuro-functioning or neurobehavioral problems than those on rodents. Industry-sponsored guideline rodent studies aren’t designed to identify long-term learning and behavioral problems. After all, rodents aren’t asked to sit quietly in a desk all day and listen to the teacher. For example, epidemiology studies are identifying low-dose, long-term problems associated with brain-toxic organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos.
On the other hand, epidemiology can be much stronger when paired with animal toxicology or other laboratory studies that can carefully control the exposure and other study parameters. As Dr. Adam Finkel of the University of Pennsylvania once wrote to me: “Looking for environmental stressors only using epidemiology is like looking for distant galaxies using only binoculars.”
That’s why the animal studies are so important! As NIEHS cancer toxicologist Dr. James Huff points out, all known human carcinogens have also been found to cause cancer in animals. For many chemicals that are human carcinogens, “the first evidence of carcinogenesis was found in animals and therefore human suffering could have been avoided,” he wrote. Examples of these include: asbestos, butadiene, formaldehyde, DES, and vinyl chloride.
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) can also be complicated, with very low-dose effects that may be missed with traditional toxicology guideline studies, but may show up in the wider epidemiological studies (Myers et al 2009; Vandenberg et al 2016).
The truth is that government regulators should use information that shows harm, whatever the source. Identifying both human and animal studies should be done using a chemical assessment systematic review protocol that is established through a transparent and scientific process, and meets globally established best practices, such as the NTP-OHAT method or the Navigational Guide (NavGuide) and SYRINA for endocrine disrupting chemicals. Regulators shouldn’t discard scientific evidence of harm to duck regulatory restrictions or liability claims at the expense of our health, as will be done if EPA uses its flawed (but industry-endorsed) TSCA Systematic Review.
The Trump administration has been hellbent on this, doing all it can to undercut science:
- It has tried to populate EPA scientific review panels with corporate scientists (and exclude a wide swath of independent ones);
- It has moved to exclude the peer-reviewed non-industry science the EPA can use to set health standards under the cloak of attacking “secret science”;
- It has put new restrictions on the use of science under the flawed EPA TSCA Systematic Review.
Science is a process, and one that requires analysis and re-analysis—but also an honest attempt to find the truth. Too often, industry’s “science” has only meant results that show its products should be sold willy-nilly. While the Trump administration appears willing to accept these tarnished findings, it’s reassuring that state regulators, judges and juries—and the general public—are not.