Pesticide Regulations – FIFRA
Pesticides are poisons. They are intended to kill. Yet, they do tremendous good, as well. Insecticides have helped eliminate diseases like typhoid and malaria. Herbicides and insecticides are in some measure responsible for America’s agricultural abundance. The trick is to use these chemicals in ways that kill what we want them to kill without harming other plants and animals … or ourselves.
In the late 1940s, the federal government responded to the conflicting potentials for good and evil of pesticides by enacting one of the earliest and long-lasting regulatory laws. It was known as FIFRA, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act of 1947. Some historians (like Christopher J. Bosso in Pesticides and Politics) call FIFRA the “one of the granddaddies of federal regulation.” But it was not the kind of regulation that we are used to today.
There had been regulatory measures before FIFRA. The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906 to keep contaminated foods off of American tables. There was also the 1910 Federal Insecticide Act, but that law was not intended to regulate the use of pesticides. Instead, it was enacted to protect farmers from deceptive manufacturers of the arsenic and lead-based insecticides.
The 1910 law did not apply to the Pandora’s box of chemicals that was opened after World War II. So, farmers and the USDA were again concerned that unscrupulous manufacturers would try to sell chemicals that didn’t work. These were brand new compounds and farmers of the time were not chemists. The established chemical companies were concerned that new companies could come in and take away a potentially huge market. And the public saw only the benefits of these new wonder drugs.
Largely out of the public eye, farm groups, the manufacturers and the USDA began working with Congress to write a new pesticides law. What the four participants came up with was a bill to require pesticide manufacturers to register their chemicals with the USDA and provide label information about the contents, directions for use and antidotes if the chemical was ingested by humans. The stated objective was to protect “the users of economic poisons [farmers and] the reputable manufacturer or distributor from those few opportunists who would discredit the industry.”
Nothing was said in the FIFRA legislation about protecting the public or the environment from long-term exposure to pesticides. In part, the reason nothing was said was that not much was known about long-term or low level exposure. There had been a few warnings. In 1944, researchers at the U.S. Public Health Service warned, “The toxicity of DDT combined with its cumulative actions and absorbability through the skin places a definite health hazard in its use.” Some USDA studies had seen the destruction of “beneficial” insects and wildlife along with the destruction of the target insect. And the FDA had quietly considered holding DDT off the market to study it further. But the no one knew enough about the potential harm from DDT or other pesticides to overcome the good that was being demonstrated every day.
So, the passage of one of the longest-lasting regulatory acts was noted way down on page 26 of the New York Times on June 26, 1947. Below recipes and articles on new household products was this item:
“A bill requiring color in some poisons to lessen the chance of housewives putting bug instead of baking powder into their biscuits became law today. President Truman signed the measure which tightens a 1910 insecticide control law, bringing rat and weed poisons under the act. It also requires coloring of any dangerous poisons that might be mistaken for flour, sugar, salt and the like, registration of poisons before they go on the market, and warning labels.”
Coloring pesticides was a minor part of the law and the labeling requirements were more “self-regulatory” than strong control of the manufacture and use of these legal poisons. But the law did bring the government into the business of regulating new and dangerous chemicals. And in the first five years of FIFRA’s existence, companies registered almost 10,000 new pesticides.
There were no fundamental changes to FIFRA between 1947 and 1972. But in that time, a rising public concern with chemical contamination and unintended consequences lead to an active regulation of product safety and protection of public health and the environment.