We frequently observe here that almost everything in public health, from the societal level to the molecular level, is a balancing act. With most benefits comes a risk and with many risks a benefit. Of course there is a problem when the benefits and risks accrue to different parties as when the public runs the risks and the corporation gets the benefits. So that’s one problem in making the trade-offs. Another is when the risks and benefits are completely different, essentially non-comparable. We often try to solve this by measuring them on a common scale like total number of lives saved or lost, or more commonly, by monetizing both and measuring things in dollars (soon to be Euros if things keep up the way they have recently). However you do it, it is nice to do it in some consistent way. A lawsuit just filed against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that is just what EPA has not been doing for benefits:
Environmentalist and worker protection groups have sued EPA in an attempt to force the agency to develop a standard process for assessing the benefits of high-risk pesticides. The plaintiffs are using four organophosphate pesticides as a springboard to argue that when the agency re-registered them it failed to perform an adequate assessment of the chemicals’ benefits. As a result, EPA inaccurately concluded the benefits outweigh the risks the pesticides pose to workers and the environment, the plaintiffs argue.
If successful, the lawsuit could force the development of a new EPA benefits-assessment policy that would impact the way in which EPA makes pesticide risk management decisions. (Inside EPA newsletter, subscription only)
The applicable federal law here is the Federal Insecticide Fungicide & Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) which requires manufacturers to prove a risky product to show its benefits outweigh their risks. EPA’s usual method is to ask the manufacturer if there are any alternatives:
EPA has taken over the manufacturer’s role of performing the benefits assessment for most pesticides, says the Earthjustice source, who has 20 years’ experience working on these issues. Many of these assessments simply entail Office of Pesticide Program staff calling the manufacturer or pesticide industry association and inquiring if there are alternatives to the pesticide, the source says. If there is no chemical alternative, the agency often concludes that the benefits outweigh the risks, the source says. This process usually means that organic and non-chemical alternatives to pesticides are overlooked, the source says. (Inside EPA)
The suit also charges EPA with failure to consult other relevant federal agencies like National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) and/or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in making the benefits assessment. According to Inside EPA, the complaint asks for a court finding that EPA “acted arbitrarily, capriciously, and in violation of FIFRA in re-registering uses” of the four specific pesticides at issue, although more broadly the suit would have the effect of forcing EPA to establish a more explicit and consistent method for evaluating benefits.
As the Bush administration recedes into history we can hope to see some of the gravest distortions in regulatory policy corrected. Many of them predated Bush but were taken to their logical extreme by this administration. This may be a historic opportunity to rationalize some policies that have distorted the physical, political and economic landscapes of environmental protection.
With the prospect of a more solidly Democratic Congress the main question will be whether we will have the Silent Spring or the Spring of Eternal Hope.