Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

EPA tightens rules on human testing

A victory 7 years in the making! Yesterday EPA published its proposed rule on testing pesticides on humans, and it's a giant step forward. The new rule categorically bans testing on pregnant or nursing women and on children. It expands protections for all testing including tests conducted by other governments, private industry and organizations. And it sets stringent criteria to ensure that tests are scientifically credible.

These safeguards are the result of the latest chapter in a battle against the chemical industry's unethical pesticide experiments on humans that date back, at least in the U.S., to the passing of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act. This current struggle began in 2004 with EPA's approval of an industry-funded study in Duval County, Florida—in predominantly low-income, African American communities—in which investigators offered families money and camcorders to let them observe the effects of household pesticides on their children

In response to widespread public outrage, Senator Boxer and Representative Waxman issued a detailed report, Human Testing Experiments, that led to a 2005 federal law banning human testing until EPA put into place strict ethical and scientific protections for testing pesticides on humans. EPA responded in 2006 with the first ever U.S. rule on human testing of pesticides, but the rule fell far short of providing adequate protections for human test subjects.

Pesticide Action Network and partners then sued EPA on the grounds that the rule ignored scientific criteria proposed by the National Academy of Sciences, did not prohibit testing on pregnant women and children, and even violated the most basic elements of the Nuremberg Code, including fully informed consent. Furthermore, it allowed EPA to use human experiments—in which people are paid to eat or drink pesticides, to enter pesticide vapor “chambers,” and to have pesticides sprayed into their eyes or rubbed onto their skin—to set allowable exposure standards. The pesticide industry has used such experiments to argue for weaker regulation of harmful chemicals.

Joining PAN in the lawsuit was a diverse range of partners including farmworker, public health and environmental organizations. Attorneys from NRDC, Earthjustice, and Farmworker Justice served as legal counsel.

Four years later in 2010, EPA agreed to settle the lawsuit and to modify the human testing rule to require far stronger safeguards to prevent unethical and unscientific pesticide research on humans. Yesterday the proposed rule was published and today we celebrate this victory! 

We'll still need to be vigilant of course. Industry will continue to push for human evidence of "pesticide safety." In the long term, the real solution is to eliminate use of hazardous pesticides, and along with it the need to study how the chemicals damage human health.

Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves is a PAN Senior Scientist with expertise in agroecology and soil ecology. As a long-time farmworker advocate, Margaret serves on the Board of the Equitable Food Initiative and works with partners around the country to ensure worker-protective federal and state policy. Follow @MargaretatPAN

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