Ethical concerns halt chemical exposure research

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has cancelled funding for two studies during which babies and young children would have been exposed to pesticides and other chemicals because of ethical concerns.

One of the axed research projects was a $2.5 million effort involving observational studies to identify how young children are exposed to environmental chemicals. 

The second initiative EPA has cancelled is a $1.5 million project to examine novel approaches to assess the exposure for school-aged children in longitudinal studies. The project aims to spur new methods of classifying exposure for children between two and 11 years to toxic chemicals in their environment, for use in large-scale longitudinal exposure assessment and epidemiological studies.

Such observational studies often involve payments to parents to gain their children’s participation.

’It is of the utmost importance that all research studies conducted or supported by the US EPA meet the highest ethical and scientific standards,’ EPA explains. The agency is currently developing ethical guidelines for observational exposure studies. The two studies could be resumed once the procedures are in place, the agency says.

However, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee - which has jurisdiction over environmental policy - claims that EPA only halted the research after congressional staffers raised ethical concerns in a closed-door meeting.

Opponents are concerned that the suspended studies could involve intentional exposure of children to toxins by a parent or school official.

Others are less suspicious. ’It might be that they are trying to track down the source of the exposure,’ says  Carl Baum, who directs Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Center for Children’s Environmental Toxicology. Collecting blood or urine from children to determine incidental environmental exposure to a pesticide would be minimally invasive and ethically acceptable, he notes.

But EPA does not have a clean track record. The agency funded the now infamous Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS) in 2004, which offered participating families money, a camcorder and a study t-shirt and calendar. The project was cancelled by the EPA in April 2005 amid heavy criticism.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA