Your government at work

For better or worse, the gears of government administration grind unstoppably on, churning out regulations and laws that dictate what we can and cannot do, say, buy, sell, use, etc. Of course, we all understand that laws are necessary in society. But government regulations, like all human endeavors, can be hit-or-miss. Some turn out well, some not so well.

This month's issue of Grounds Maintenance focuses on the object of some of the most onerous government regulations of all: insecticides. Our government has much to say about which pesticides we can use and how we may use them. Is the pesticide regulation in the United States good or bad? Some people think it doesn't go far enough. Others feel it goes too far and lacks common sense. Perhaps the mixed reviews are an indication that our government's chief pesticide regulator, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is effectively compromising between competing interests.

To be sure, the EPA often finds itself in no-win situations. Whatever you think of the EPA, it's only fair to recognize that it must take its marching orders from the legislative and executive branches of government.

For example, the EPA didn't ask for the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), enacted by Congress in 1996, but now it must administer its provisions, some of which, in hindsight, were ill-conceived.

The FQPA mandates a complete reregistration of pesticides based on newer, more stringent standards: a monstrous task by any measure. To make matters worse, the FQPA includes “hard” deadlines, and these have proven nearly impossible to meet. Is this the EPA's fault? No. Particularly when you consider that FQPA requires the EPA to evaluate pesticides using methods that, literally, must be invented as it goes along. This, of course, wasn't considered by Congress, which is chronically prone to legislating first and asking questions later.

One of the most glaring examples is the issue of endocrine disruptors; the notion that tiny amounts of certain synthetic chemicals, in synergistic combination, exert significant hormonal disruptions in our bodies is a relatively new concept. When Congress was considering the FQPA, endocrine disruption was just coming to the front as an environmental issue, due largely to a research paper in the journal Science, and to the book Our Stolen Future (which cites the former paper as supporting evidence). Both were published in 1996 and received great media fanfare. It was not a well-explored scientific field, and quite controversial. Nevertheless, Congress decided to require the EPA to screen pesticides for endocrine-disrupting qualities. And so it became part of the FQPA.

Soon, however, the science of endocrine disruption ran into some disruption of its own. In 1997, Science printed a retraction of the 1996 paper. Neither the original authors nor other scientists could duplicate the findings. Initially, it was assumed that the researchers were guilty of little more than bad science. The truth turns out to be a bit darker than that.

A little-known government agency, the Office of Research Integrity, began looking into the matter. So did Tulane University, where one of the study's authors, Dr. Steven F. Arnold, was employed. Investigators found that Dr. Arnold “engaged in scientific misconduct…by intentionally falsifying the research results…there is no original data or other corroborating evidence to support the research results and conclusions reported in the Science paper as a whole.”

The result? Arnold, in effect, copped a plea. After admitting his wrongdoing, he was banned from accepting government grant money for 5 years.

He got off easy. Not so for chemical manufacturers that have spent millions proving that their products aren't endocrine disruptors, as required by the FQPA. In addition, a great deal of government grant money has been spent studying the problem (including some given to Arnold).

You might think that Congress would rescind this part of FQPA. But you'd be wrong. Even the EPA has admitted that the evidence linking endocrine disruptors to human health is scant, but the spending continues. That's politics for you.

In the meantime, the EPA continues to grind away at the task of reevaluating pesticides, as required by the FQPA. One of the expected results (for reasons other than endocrine disruption) is the loss of many of the traditional insecticides you've relied on, particularly organophosphates. Fortunately, there are alternatives, and that's the subject of this month's cover feature, “Are you prepared to lose your OP shield?” The author, Dr. R. Chris Williamson of the University of Wisconsin, explains your options, beginning on page 14.

This issue also contains our annually revised Insecticide Update: a cross-referenced listing of turf pests and the insecticides that control them. It's interesting to consider that this listing contains several products that won't be available in a year or two. For better or worse, your government at work.

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