Washington, DC — In a defensively worded statement, Stephen Johnson, Acting Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the end of the CHEERS study in which parents were paid to spray pesticides in the rooms occupied by their infant children under age 3. Johnson did not admit any ethical problems with the study but concluded without explanation that the study could not “go forward…in an atmosphere absent of gross misrepresentation and controversy.” U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) had previously announced that they would hold Johnson’s confirmation as EPA Administrator unless he cancelled CHEERS.
While CHEERS (which stands for Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study) will no go forward with EPA funding, the exact same study can proceed with private sponsors, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In fact, the American Chemistry Council, which represents 135 companies including pesticide manufacturers, had already pledged $2 million toward the study’s $9 million overall cost.
In February, EPA published a draft policy that opens the door for accepting
any experiments conducted by pesticide companies and chemical manufacturers
using human subjects without establishing safeguards to ensure that the studies
are conducted ethically and without harm to the subjects. Under this policy,
EPA indefinitely delays ethical rules and, instead, relies on its political
appointees to flag immoral or unsafe practices on a “case-by-case”
“The reason Stephen Johnson clung so stubbornly to this creepy CHEERS effort is that it served as the beacon to industry that EPA would welcome similar experiments,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the pesticide industry wants to use human testing to trump animal studies so as to justify relaxed exposure limits. “Stephen Johnson has become the pesticide industry’s ‘go-to-guy’ at EPA.”
Under the overall human dosing policy advocated by Johnson, EPA will have no protections for –
- Infants, neonates, pregnant women, and prisoners. By contrast, all medical and drug testing overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services has such safeguards; and
- Ensuring that companies have obtained informed consent or have not paid undue inducements.
As evidenced by the CHEERS fiasco, EPA lacks any independent safety or ethical review mechanism. In January, after the study had drawn controversy, EPA published a special Federal Register notice looking for experts in “ethical standards of research protocols and bioethics” because the agency lacked expertise in those areas.
To mask its lack of standards, during his confirmation hearing, Johnson claimed that the Centers for Disease Control had approved CHEERS. But, according to a January 18, 2005 letter from EPA to Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), CDC had not reviewed it.
“EPA should adopt the basic safeguards required by common decency before they start using human dosing experiments,” Ruch added. “Canceling CHEERS does not end the argument about the need for ethical standards in human testing; it merely opens another round in that debate.”