New policy gives priority to food safety Federal change may help shield children from pesticides

June 27, 1993|By Marian Burros | Marian Burros,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The federal government's decision to reduce the use of chemicals in the production of the nation's food assigns a higher priority than in the past to protecting the health of children and the environment.

The change of policy, which could alter everything about the way food is grown and what Americans eat, was incorporated in an announcement made Friday by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture, and will be reinforced in a major scientific report that will be issued Tuesday.

The announcement by the three agencies will "create incentives for the development of safe pesticides" and will "remove those pesticides that pose the greatest risk from the market," said Dr. David A. Kessler, the commissioner of food and drugs, in an interview.

"The administration is committed to reducing pesticides," he said, and is now endorsing the use of "integrated pest management," a farming method that substitutes the use of beneficial insects and crop rotation for some pesticides.

Mr. Kessler said the announcement marked "a major landmark in the history of food safety."

Until now, critics charge, agencies in the government have been at odds over agricultural chemicals, and in recent years, especially during the Reagan and Bush administrations, there has been no effort to restrict their use.

Until now, there has been no coordinated effort among the agencies, except when concerns about individual pesticides have raised public alarm. Otherwise, the EPA has dealt with analyzing the safety of pesticides, the FDA has tested for pesticide residues in food and the Agriculture Department has worked to keep pesticides on the market to help farm production and income.

"The Agriculture Department, EPA and the Food and Drug Administration are working together in a way they have never done before to benefit the American people," said Carol M. Browner, administrator of the EPA.

As the government's attitude evolves, there is concern in both the food industry and the environmental movement that the new message could cause panic and discourage people from eating fruits and vegetables, just at the time the government is also stepping up efforts to persuade Americans to consume more of them.

Children's sensitivity

The report being released Tuesday hedges its findings, saying that children may be uniquely sensitive to pesticide residues. The report, written by the National Academy of Sciences, says changes are necessary in chemical regulations to protect infants and children because of this possible sensitivity.

"Infants and children differ both quantitatively and qualitatively from adults in their exposure to pesticide residues in foods," the report says, because they consume more calories per unit of body weight and eat fewer types of food than adults.

The academy found that the data on what children eat and on how to set tolerance levels for pesticide residues for children are inadequate to make certain that they are protected.

While acknowledging the need for pesticides to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables available, the academy recommends that the EPA modify its decision-making so that health considerations, rather than agricultural production, are foremost.

This is a significant change from current policy. In determining tolerance levels for pesticide residues, the EPA now factors in economic benefits along with risks to human health.

The report also recommends that testing for pesticides be done on juvenile animals whose systems are more nearly like children's than on adult animals, on which most testing has always been done.

It also calls for the collection of additional food-consumption data and more frequent sampling of foods that children eat in large quantities. And it says all exposures to pesticides, not just those from food, should be considered when setting tolerance levels.

The report concludes that "children should be able to eat a healthful diet containing legal residues without encroaching on safety margins. This should be kept clear."

Huge dose alleged

Another report, which is to be made public Monday, was done by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based, nonprofit research organization. It says that much of an individual's exposure to pesticides in food occurs by the age of 5 because children eat far more fruits and vegetables in relation to their body weight than adults.

"Millions of children in the United States receive up to 35 percent of their entire lifetime dose of some carcinogenic pesticides by age 5," according to the report. By the time the average child is a year old, the report said, he or she will have already received the acceptable lifetime doses of eight pesticides from just 20 commonly eaten foods.

The report emphasizes that the levels of exposure to pesticides that the EPA considers either probable or possible human carcinogens are low, but that the health effects are not known and, until now, have not been investigated.

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