Back in the mid-‘00s, Jacksonville was briefly the center of a controversy over a study proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Beginning in fall 2004, the EPA – led by then-acting-head Stephen Johnson – began recruiting local families for their Children’s Health Environmental Exposure Research Study, or CHEERS. Flyers were dispersed to doctors’ offices around the city, promising financial compensation for joining.
The object of the study was to determine the effect of heavy indoor use of common commercially-available pesticides and other household chemicals on the development of infants. All of the 60 families who signed up for the study had at least one child under 13 months old and were already heavy users of household chemicals.
Parents were tasked with videotaping their infants’ activities, as well as collecting blood and urine samples, over a period of two years. In return, they’d receive just under $1000, a collection of swag including a T-shirt that said “CHEERS” on it, and a new camcorder for documentation purposes that they got to keep after the study’s conclusion.
Jacksonville was chosen as the site of the study because it’s an area where frequent pesticide use is common.
The CHEERS study was to be performed in cooperation with the CDC and Duval County Health Department. The EPA insisted that everything they were doing was safe and ethical, with no additional chemicals being introduced to infants and researchers monitoring every step of the way.
That didn’t stop the study from coming under heavy criticism, both locally and nationally. Because of the compensation of cash and gifts offered, the EPA was accused of targeting lower-income families. And though the study didn’t require the use of additional pesticides, it did offer compensation for the continued frequent use of pesticides that feature heavy chemicals indoors around infants – a practice that existing research suggested to be potentially dangerous to infant development. It was argued that the study amounted to the government sanctioning dangerous parenting practices.
Adding to the complications behind CHEERS was its funding. 22% of the study’s $9 million budget came from a lobbyist organization that works on behalf of dozens of chemical companies.
After less than a year, the EPA backed down – but not because they agreed that the study was reckless. Instead, CHEERS’ end came about as a result of political chess. Johnson’s nomination process to become the permanent head of the EPA for the Bush administration was being held up by senators Barbara Boxer and Bill Nelson, who were specifically objecting to the study.
The EPA agreed to drop CHEERS in April 2005, and Johnson’s nomination was confirmed. Additional measures were added shortly after to prevent studies involving children and pregnant women.
Johnson served out the rest of his term in the Bush administration, then joined the board of directors for Scotts Miracle-Gro in 2010.