Politics dooms pestcide study

The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday canceled a controversial study using children to measure the effect of pesticides after Democrats said they would block Senate confirmation of the agency’s new head.

Stephen Johnson, as EPA’s acting administrator, ordered an end to the planned study, a reversal from the agency’s position just a day earlier when it said it would await the advice of outside scientific experts.

The aim of the study, Johnson said, was to fill data gaps on children’s exposure to household pesticides and chemicals. He suspended it last November after ethical questions were raised by scientists within EPA and by environmentalists.

Over the study’s two years, EPA had planned to give $970 plus a camcorder and children’s clothes to each of the families of 60 children in Duval County, Fla., in what critics of the study noted was a low-income minority neighborhood.

EPA also had agreed to accept $2 million for the $9 million “Children’s Health Environmental Exposure Research Study” from the American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents chemical makers.

“I have concluded that the study cannot go forward, regardless of the outcome of the independent review. EPA must conduct quality, credible research in an atmosphere absent of gross misrepresentation and controversy,” Johnson said Friday. “I am committed to ensuring that EPA’s research is based on sound science with the highest ethical standards.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., had joined with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., in demanding the study’s cancellation as a condition for confirming Johnson’s nomination by President Bush.

“I am very pleased that Mr. Johnson has recognized the gross error in judgment the EPA made when they concocted this immoral program to test pesticides on children,” Boxer said.

“The CHEERS program was a reprehensible idea that never should have made it out of the boardroom, and I am just happy that it was stopped before any children were put in harms way,” Boxer said, adding that she would continue to oppose any testing of toxins on humans.

On Thursday, the agency said it would await a report from a science advisory panel, a process that spokesman Rich Hood said could take until May, before deciding the study’s fate.

Johnson, an EPA employee for a quarter-century and the first person with a science background to be nominated to lead the agency, has been acting administrator since Mike Leavitt left the agency in January to become secretary of the Health and Human Services Department. He was nominated in March.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which met on Wednesday to hear from Johnson, said Friday it would meet again next week to consider his nomination.

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