A Plague of Regulators

A new regulatory plague is descending upon the land.  While we as a nation have become more accomplished at fighting the plagues of old—pests and disease—bumbling regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are giving them a renewed vitality.


In the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA), generally notable for its deficiencies,  Congress had a moment of lucid thought.  Recognizing that FQPA could reduce pesticide control options, Congress directed the EPA to develop a list of pests of “significant public health importance” and then to facilitate measures for pest control.  One measure would ease the regulatory burden that impedes the use and development of pesticide products necessary for controlling the listed pests.  Yet this rare example of congressional common sense has gotten lost in bureaucratic translation.


The EPA just released a draft version of this list.  Let’s see how in-sync you are with EPA bureaucratic “logic.”  In which of the following scenarios does the EPA find a pest of significant public health importance?


a) A poor family lives in the inner- city of Washington, DC.  As working poor, they’re not living in federal housing; they rent from a slumlord.  Their four-year-old son has severe asthma.  The public health nurse tells them that studies link cockroaches to asthma in inner-city children.  Sure enough, they’ve got cockroaches.  They’ve got cockroaches that go clubbing in their kitchen and promenade through their living room and kick back in their bathroom.  What they don’t have is a landlord who’s interested in ending the infestation; they have to make do with what pesticides they can buy.


b) An upper-middle-class suburbanite lives in Connecticut.  While throwing one of her marvelous outdoor soirees at the local country club (Martha Stewart eats her dust), a tick nymph lurking in the boxwood topiaries latches onto her.  Thirty-six hours later she finds and removes the tick, but two weeks after that she has a rash around the bite and seems to have a mild case of the flu in midsummer.  The doctor diagnoses Lyme Disease.  As part of his jovial prescription-writing patter, he informs her that there are more cases of Lyme Disease in Connecticut than there are cases of Salmonellosis and E. coli O157:H7 combined. 


c) Migrant workers in southern Delaware live in housing located near one of Delaware’s many chicken farms.  Flies view the farm as a sort of Disney World, and the migrant quarters as a combination of McDonald’s and Motel 6.  Workers have been experiencing various forms of intestinal distress, but they don’t think too much of it.  It’s probably the weather, and who doesn’t have diarrhea and vomiting every now and then?  After all, they don’t know that flies carry Salmonella enteritis.


So, which scenario identifies an EPA-designated pest?  The answer is (d): None of the above.  Although a, b, and c are clearly public health risks, the EPA does not list ticks or flies as threats to the public health, and only bureaucratic reasoning gave cockroaches a place on the list.


Congress, on the other hand, helpfully identified all of these organisms in its definition of a vector as “any organism capable of transmitting the causative agent of human disease or capable of producing human discomfort or injury, including mosquitoes, flies, fleas, cockroaches, or other insects and ticks, mites, or rats.”  Cockroaches made the EPA list, but only because they live in public housing.  The EPA excluded flies, fleas, ticks, and mites altogether.


So how did the EPA come up with a list containing such obvious omissions?  By using a peculiar definition of “pests of significant public health importance.”  For an organism to be classified as such, the EPA requires that a) a publicly-funded program controls the organism and b) the program uses a pesticide that is used more than 50 percent of the time for controlling public health pests.


The EPA’s definition is a dubious interpretation of the law and a mockery of common sense. Whether an organism is a public health “pest” under the law depends on the inherent disease- and injury-causing characteristics of the pest, not on control methods.  A cockroach is a disease-carrying organism that threatens public health whether it dwells in an urban apartment building or in a public housing project.  A tick impacts public health just as much when it transmits Lyme Disease to someone who doesn’t live in a state that has a publicly-funded tick control program as when it infects someone who does.


The EPA definition and the meager list disturb public health officials.  Even though the EPA included the mosquito on the list, the American Mosquito Control Association urged members to submit comments to the EPA, arguing that the current arbitrary definition of public health pest will cause safe, effective pesticides to fall through the cracks of the approval process.  Thanks to the new plague of regulators, insect control officers, public health officials, and the public will have fewer weapons with which to fight the old ones.


Jennifer Zambone ([email protected]) is an environmental research assistant at CEI.