The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has temporarily suspended its controversial Children's Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS). CHEERS was designed to research the effects of pesticide exposure -- including inhalation, ingestion, and absorption -- on 60 children, newborn to age three, over a two year period. Many participant families have already been recruited from Jacksonville, Florida. To be eligible, they had to agree to 'spray or have pesticides sprayed inside [their] home[s] routinely.'
The EPA has received over $2 million from the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry lobby group, to help fund the study. When scientists and the public began to raise ethical questions about the contribution, the EPA temporarily halted the study, removed the protocol from its Web site, and submitted CHEERS to a third party review, which has yet to start. Pending approval, the EPA will begin CHEERS testing again this spring.
Environmental and human rights groups have a number of ethical concerns about CHEERS. There are no provisions for treatment of children should developmental problems or high exposure levels occur. Additionally, there is no framework for educating participating families about the risks of prolonged pesticide exposure.
What troubles most critics is the EPA's recruitment strategy. According to the Asheville Global Report (Dec. 30, 2004; issue not yet available on the web), 'the three county health clinics from which subjects are drawn serve the poorest and least educated members of the community.' The incentives? $970, a video camera, a T-shirt, a 'study bib,' calendars, and a certificate of appreciation.
There is also speculation that the results of the study will be used to roll back Clinton-era pesticide protections and set a disturbing new precedent for human testing. Already, the EPA has issued a statement that it will begin making decisions 'concerning ethically problematic studies on a case-by-case basis.' Other government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, have ethical safeguards in place for human testing.
A number of environmental and human rights groups, including Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, have issued statements condemning CHEERS. Some of these groups are working to garner public attention to the study and circulate a petition to discontinue CHEERS before testing starts up again.