The new pesticide bill moving through Congress is a delicate high-wire act that satisfies many interests but keeps everyone holding their breath. It creates a single standard for allowable pesticide levels in food and imposes new considerations on regulators deciding which pesticides are safe.
Used to be, the raw food in your grocer's bin could contain only trace amounts of cancer-causing chemicals. The processed foods weren't allowed to contain any at all. Thanks to the House, all foods now may contain some carcinogens, but only enough to create less than a one-in-a-million lifetime risk of developing cancer. Hooray? Applause is in order, but use only one hand.
On the hand that favors agribusiness and chemical companies, this version of the bill allows for trace amounts of pesticides where none had been allowed in the past and leaves a loophole for higher levels of pesticides if crops are threatened. It also prohibits states from setting standards that exceed Washington's.
On the hand favoring consumers and the environment, the House has established progressive standards based on how chemicals affect individuals. The bill, unanimously approved Thursday in the House Commerce Committee, set a standard of "reasonable certainty" that no one would be harmed by consuming foods. Reasonable certainty, or the one-in-a-million-chance standard, would be determined by reviewing all regulated pesticides over the next decade and paying special attention to certain vulnerable populations.
For the first time, regulators will be explicitly required to protect children from potential nerve and other damage caused by pesticides. They must weigh the risk of breast cancer and reproductive damage in women, too. The Environmental Protection Agency can also start singling out pesticides to ban under the new rules, so companies will have to develop safer ones that can be more easily approved.
The bill probably will make food safer overall by holding all food to a tough standard, spurring the creation of safer pesticides and reducing public exposure to poisons as the review process phases pesticides out. It's about time lawmakers attempted to balance the human and environmental aspects of this debate with the economic ones.
As senators draft a similar bill, they should try to close some of the loopholes and preserve the delicate equilibrium between consumer, environmental and business interests the House tried to achieve. If Congress can accomplish such a feat, it will truly be cause for celebration.