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In seeking this week to streamline federal rules to allow pesticides to be taken off the market more quickly, President Bush is doing what should have been done long ago. He will not find many critics for his action.

But the president already is under fire for the second part of his plan - to relax the "zero-risk" standard applied to pesticides and replace it with one of "negligible risk."An argument has simmered for years over how far regulations should go in trying to create a "zero-risk" environment. In actual fact, such a condition is not possible. There is no way to eliminate all risk, at least not without disproportionate cost and effort for very little return.

Of course, critics then cry that human health is being sacrificed for greater profits. Yet the search for risk-free situations cannot be carried to extremes without eliminating pesticides altogether.

The Bush plan would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to move more quickly to get rid of potentially hazardous pesticides. The present procedure takes four to eight years and has banned only three products in the past 18 years.

The Bush proposal would cut the procedure down to two to four years. If it had been in place earlier, the enhanced EPA authority would have been able to prevent the Alar scare that shook the apple industry earlier this year.

As far as relaxing the zero-risk standard goes, the president seeks a tenfold reduction. Under present rules, no cancer-causing substance can be deemed safe in any amount.

The EPA currently prohibits use of any pesticide that results in a cancer risk in food of one part in one million. Bush wants the rule to be one part in 100,000, a negligible amount.

Environmentalists in Congress already are promising to take up the fight. But no matter how it turns out, one major improvement already has been accomplished. The Bush proposal has brought together the top federal agencies involved in food safety - the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department - for the first time.

Sadly, it is typical of Washington that major federal agencies with overlapping responsibilities can function so long in related areas without ever getting together to coordinate their activities. At least they will be working jointly on the pesticide problem now.