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News from the National Academies

Date:  April 30, 2013




Federal Agencies Should Use a Common Approach to Evaluate Risks That

Pesticides Pose to Endangered and Threatened Species


WASHINGTON -- When determining the potential effects pesticides could pose to endangered or threatened species, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) should use a common scientific approach, says a new report from the National Research Council.  Specifically, the agencies should use a risk assessment approach that addresses problem formulation, exposure analysis, effects analysis, and risk characterization.


Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, before a pesticide can be sold, distributed, or used in the United States, EPA must ensure that it does not cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment, which includes species that are listed as endangered or threatened and their habitats.  Moreover, the U.S. Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies, including EPA, to consult with FWS and NMFS when a federal action "may affect" a listed species or its habitat.  If EPA determines that a pesticide is "not likely to adversely affect" a listed species -- and FWS or NMFS agrees -- no further consultation is required.  However, if EPA determines that a pesticide is "likely to adversely affect" a listed species, a formal consultation with FWS or NMFS is required, and FWS or NMFS determines whether a proposed action is likely to jeopardize the listed species and issues a biological opinion. 


Over the last decade, questions have been raised regarding the best approaches or methods for determining the risks pesticides pose to listed species and their habitats.  EPA, FWS, and NMFS have developed their own approaches because their legal mandates, responsibilities, institutional cultures, and expertise differ.  Although the agencies have tried to resolve their differences in assessment approaches, they have been unsuccessful at reaching a consensus.  As a result, the National Research Council was asked to examine the scientific and technical issues related to determining risks posed by pesticides to listed species. 


The committee that wrote the report said that a common approach among the agencies is needed.  The risk assessment paradigm that traces its origins to the Research Council reports Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process and more recently to Science and Decisions: Advancing Risk Assessment has become scientifically credible, transparent, and consistent; is reliably anticipated by all parties involved in decisions regarding pesticide use; and clearly articulates where scientific judgment is required and the bounds within which such judgments can be made.  Such a process is used broadly for human-health and ecological risk assessments throughout the federal government.


If FWS and NMFS could build on EPA's analysis of whether a pesticide is likely to adversely affect a listed species rather than conduct a completely new analysis, the assessment would likely be more effective and scientifically credible, the committee determined.  Furthermore, agreement among the agencies has been impeded by a lack of communication and coordination throughout the process.  Therefore, the committee emphasized the need for coordination, which it views as necessary to ensure a complete and representative assessment of risk and that each agency's technical needs are met.


The committee examined several components of the risk assessment process where better coordination and agreement would facilitate an integrated approach to examining risks to listed species and their habitats.  These included evaluating methods for identifying the best scientific data available, assessing approaches for developing modeling assumptions, identifying geospatial information that might be used in the risk assessment, reviewing approaches for characterizing effects, analyzing the scientific information available for estimating effects of mixtures and inert ingredients, and examining the use of uncertainty factors to account for gaps in data.


The study was sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to NAS in 1863.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit  A committee roster follows.



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Pre-publication copies of Assessing Risks to Endangered and Threatened Species From Pesticides are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at or by calling tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).




Division of Earth and Life Studies

Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology


Committee on Ecological Risk Assessment Under FIFRA and ESA


Judith McDowell (chair)

Senior Scientist

Biology Department

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Woods Hole, Mass.


H. Resit Akcakaya


Department of Ecology and Evolution

Stony Brook University

Stony Brook, N.Y.


Mary Jane Angelo

Professor of Law, and


Environmental and Land-Use Law Program

University of Florida



Patrick Durkin

Co-founder and Principal Scientist

Syracuse Environmental Research Associates Inc.

Manlius, N.Y.


Anne Fairbrother

Principal Scientist

Exponent Inc.

Bellevue, Wash.


Erica Fleishman


John Muir Institute of the Environment

University of California



Daniel Goodman[1]


Environmental Statistics Group

Montana State University

William L. Graf
University Foundation Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Department of Geography
University of South Carolina

Philip M. Gschwend
Parsons Laboratory
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Bruce K. Hope
Principal Environmental Scientist
CH2M Hill Inc.
Portland, Ore.

Gerald A. LeBlanc
Department Head and Professor
Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology
North Carolina State University

Thomas P. Quinn
School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences
University of Washington

Nu-May Ruby Reed
Staff Toxicologist
Department of Pesticide Regulation
Medical Toxicology Branch
California Environmental Protection Agency (retired)




Ellen K. Mantus

Staff Director