WASHINGTON - Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said he will block the president's pick to lead the EPA unless the agency cancels a program that will pay families in Jacksonville to join a study into the effects of pesticides on infants.
Nelson, who was joined at a press conference Thursday by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the EPA should be encouraging parents to keep small children away from pesticides - just as EPA's literature recommends.
"The government should not be asking families to turn their babies into guinea pigs," Nelson said.
The program is called CHEERS, for Children's Environmental Exposure Research Study. It is partially funded by a $2.1-million grant from the American Chemistry Council, the chief lobbying group for chemical companies. Other sponsors include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Duval County Health Department.
According to an EPA brochure distributed in parts of Jacksonville, the two-year study was designed to help the government learn more about the effects of pesticides on children; it is open to any family with an infant up to three months old, or between the ages of nine and 12 months.
Participants must agree to use household pesticides and to allow periodic visits from EPA researchers. They must collect food and urine samples from their children and record their infants' behavior with a videocamera.
In return, the families get $970, a T-shirt and a calendar. They also get to keep the videocamera.
The EPA announced the program in October, then quickly suspended it after questions surfaced about its safety and ethical implications. It launched an external review.
At a Senate committee hearing on his nomination Wednesday, EPA acting Administrator Stephen Johnson, the president's choice to run the agency, said CHEERS was still being studied.
But Boxer said she learned that the program's Web site and phone number were still active and that 30 families had sought to join. She demanded that it be canceled.
"This is sick. It's a sick, sick thing," Boxer said. She accused the EPA of trying to give the chemical industry proof that pesticides aren't harmful to children. "The pesticide companies want to be able to say, "There's no harm, these kids crawled around in pesticides for two years.' "
EPA spokesman Rich Hood said that no families had been enrolled, though some have asked, and that the study was designed "to fill critical data gaps in how we understand children are exposed."
"It did not create new exposures for children. There was no encouragement for any new pesticides to be used," Hood said. He said the EPA won't rush to cancel the study because of the threats from the Democrats.
Johnson sent Boxer a letter saying the Web site and phone number had been updated to "to accurately and clearly communicate the status of the study. Thanks for bringing this matter to my attention."
Senate rules allow any senator to place a hold on a presidential nominee. This prevents the nominee from being considered by the Senate. While holds can be broken by 60 votes, they are generally worked out politically.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.