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Who's in charge in Washington anyway? Do federal regulators always regulate the industries they are supposed to monitor and control? Or are the regulators being regulated by those very industries?

There's room for wondering in view of the current attempt by the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency to talk Congress out of a sensible regulatory reform.Last year, in a commendable act of conscience, both houses of Congress approved the proposed new Circle of Poison Prevention Act, which would outlaw the export of farm chemicals deemed too hazardous to use in the United States.

Since the dangerous chemicals are often used on foreign-grown food imported into the United States, the proposed ban on exporting them amounted to an exercise in enlightened self-interest. But the measure never became law because minor differences in the wording of the House and Senate versions could not be ironed out before Congress adjourned.

Now the nation's lawmakers are trying to pass the Circle of Poison Prevention Act again. Since the House and Senate basically agreed on the measure last year, its passage this year might seem assured.

But don't count on it.

Why? Because the three federal agencies have swallowed the line of a pesticide manufacturers group called the National Agricultural Chemicals Association and are claiming that the export ban is not needed.

What nonsense!

The claim rests largely on a report from the FDA, which analyzed 10,911 food samples representing shipments from 92 countries and found pesticide residues in only four percent of them.

Impressive? Not really.

Only two percent of the food imported into the United States is ever tested, with the remaining 98 percent going directly from the wharf to the shelf in the supermarket.

Of the few samples that are tested, traces of pesticides banned in the U.S. are concentrated in certain products. For example, more than 10 percent of imported spinach and 10 percent of imported lemons tested by the FDA contained residues of pesticides not registered for use in the United States.

Besides, there are other compelling reasons to halt the export of unregistered and banned pesticides. Foreign farm workers are often injured by the more hazardous pesticides because of a lack of training and equipment. Moreover, American farmers face unfair competition when foreign farmers are exempt from tougher U.S. pesticide controls.

Above all, human life is just as valuable overseas as it is here. Americans embrace an indefensible double standard by selling foreigners chemicals too dangerous to be used within our own borders.

The circle of poison is not just a slogan but a grim reality that Congress must overcome.