Rachel's Precaution Reporter #136 "Foresight and Precaution, in the News and in the World" Wednesday, April 02, 2008printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

Pesticides: A Toxic Time Bomb In Our Midst
Levine has written a pragmatic book for physicians, health workers, and the general public.... His own perspective as a health professional with a concern for the public health and a fondness for the "precautionary principle," which assumes that a chemical is harmful unless there is good evidence to the contrary, is not hidden.
Asking a Judge to Save the World, and Maybe a Whole Lot More
"Although [the lawsuit] sounds bizarre, the case touches on a serious issue that has bothered scholars and scientists in recent years -- namely how to estimate the risk of new groundbreaking experiments and who gets to decide whether or not to go ahead."
What Is Nanotechnology and Should We Be Concerned About It?
"Industry and government are belatedly conducting safety tests that will take several years to reach firm conclusions. Therefore we've applied the precautionary principle."
River Contains Radioactivity
"In order to conform to the precautionary principle, further investigations are in process."
Lesson From Quebec On How To Ban Lawn and Garden Pesticides
Across Canada, 140 municipalities have adopted bylaws restricting the use of pesticides on public and private property.
Major Challenges Facing PetroChemical Industry
Chemical industry executives fear that Europe's new chemicals policy, REACH -- the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals -- reflects an effort by environmental activists "to bring their own version of the precautionary principle, a thinly disguised synonym for product substitution, to the global arena".
Demon Seed
"Curiously when it comes to GMOs they [Africans] adopt the highly precautionary European standard, which makes it impossible to put these products on the market at all. I take that as evidence that this is not an authentic African response, it's a response imported from Europe."


From: JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association)
[Printer-friendly version]


By Arnold Schecter

Review of "Pesticides: A Toxic Time Bomb in Our Midst," By Marvin J. Levine (264 pp, $49.95; Wesport, CT, Praeger Press, 2007; ISBN-13: 978-0-2759-9127-2)

This is a well-written and informative book about a relatively little known area of expertise for most physicians -- chemicals in the environment and their impact on health.

The book is devoted to pesticides, which includes herbicides, insecticides, weed killers, rodenticides, bacteriocides, fungicides, and other chemicals frequently called "pesticides." It is reasonably well-referenced text. However, some statements regarding health damage could benefit from more textual references to justify the statements presented.

Levine has written a pragmatic book for physicians, health workers, and the general public. It is relatively easy reading for physicians but demands a bit more attention than a vacation book intended for beach reading. His own perspective as a health professional with a concern for the public health and a fondness for the "precautionary principle," which assumes that a chemical is harmful unless there is good evidence to the contrary, is not hidden. Frequently and throughout this volume, the author attempts to balance industry and environmental points of view and actions. And he notes the eternal conflict between the need for economic productivity and reasonably priced food, with the possible short- and long-term damage to human health from the use or misuse of various chemicals. He favors "integrated pest management," a balanced method of control using far less pesticides than is common at this time.

The book emphasizes farm workers, children, pregnant women, individuals with asthma, and elderly individuals as being more sensitive than the general population to the effects of pesticides. The book also discusses policy issues and political actions sometimes based on lobbying, as well as specific scientific and biological aspects of pesticides. Chapters include those on the presence of pesticides in foods, schools, homes, air, water, and soil; the international trade in pesticides; and suggested remedies. A number of case studies relate to health damage from pesticides or, in one case, to fear of potential but not actual chemical exposure and damage.

The past 60 years are characterized as those when use of synthetic pesticides became common in agriculture, providing a means of producing more crops on a given plot of land than had previously been possible. The author notes that there are more than 17 000 pesticides currently registered in the United States, with more than 800 active ingredients that have contributed to acute and chronic health problems. However, as resistance to pesticides and damage to wildlife and humans was noted, the public and Congress, stimulated by Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, began to see the need for laws and regulations to protect the public and wildlife. Many of these laws are described in some detail and illustrated with respect to a variety of chemicals and a number of US government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

While cancer was once the major focus of government regulatory agencies, endocrine disruption -- especially from fetal and nursing exposure -- as well as reproductive and developmental alterations have recently become areas of concern. Brain damage has also been described from in utero exposure to some pesticides, especially the "persistent organic pollutants" (POPs). These include dichloro-diphenyl- trichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and other chemicals. Although the author does not make note of them, some brominated flame retardants are considered POPs with persistence, bioconcentration, and deleterious health effects similar to those of other POPs, especially PCBs, at least in laboratory animals.

Levine states that annual pesticide use in the United States is approximately 8.8 pounds per capita, or 2.2 billion pounds of active ingredients (if wood preservatives and disinfectants are also considered). He notes that some of the chlorinated hydrocarbons or organochlorines such as diledrin, chlordane, aldrin, and heptachlor break down very slowly and can remain in the environment for years or decades. Organophosphates, now common in agriculture, on the other hand, break down much more rapidly but also are more toxic to humans.

Levine also notes that because agricultural workers, including children, are heavily exposed to pesticides and usually have little knowledge of their dangers as well as of how to protect themselves, they are at particularly high risk. Lack of good sanitary conditions and health care likewise contributes to this public health problem. Schoolchildren are also a special group at risk because of the lack of knowledge on the part of those applying pesticides, frequently untrained school employees rather than certified pesticide workers.

State laws and regulations are sometimes more stringent than federal laws, although state laws must set standards at least at the level set by the federal government. With constant lobbying on both sides of the issue, the "how safe is safe" frequently changes over time.

The author notes the high industry costs of bringing a product to market and the myriad regulations that must be followed. But he also points out that just because a product is being produced and sold, it does not necessarily follow that it has been tested sufficiently for possible serious health effects. Also, while the term "inert ingredients" was once commonly used, it simply identified ingredients not meant to do what the product was sold to do, and did not indicate that they were not toxic. This term is no longer considered appropriate, and "other ingredients" is now the preferred term.

This book is an interesting and well-written volume that should be useful in providing an up-to-date introduction to pesticides from a variety of aspects, ranging from objective scientific principles to subjective policy directives. Despite some repetition and the occasional need for more extensive scientific citations, it was enjoyable and informative.

Arnold Schecter, MD, MPH, Reviewer University of Texas School of Public Health Dallas arnold.schecter@utsouthwestern.edu

Copyright 2008 American Medical Association

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


From: New York Times
[Printer-friendly version]


By Dennis Overbye

More fighting in Iraq. Somalia in chaos. People in this country can't afford their mortgages and in some places now they can't even afford rice.

None of this nor the rest of the grimness on the front page today will matter a bit, though, if two men pursuing a lawsuit in federal court in Hawaii turn out to be right. They think a giant particle accelerator that will begin smashing protons together outside Geneva this summer might produce a black hole or something else that will spell the end of the Earth -- and maybe the universe.

Scientists say that is very unlikely -- though they have done some checking just to make sure.

The world's physicists have spent 14 years and $8 billion building the Large Hadron Collider, in which the colliding protons will recreate energies and conditions last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Researchers will sift the debris from these primordial recreations for clues to the nature of mass and new forces and symmetries of nature.

But Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a "strangelet" that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called "strange matter." Their suit also says CERN has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Although it sounds bizarre, the case touches on a serious issue that has bothered scholars and scientists in recent years -- namely how to estimate the risk of new groundbreaking experiments and who gets to decide whether or not to go ahead.

The lawsuit, filed March 21 in Federal District Court, in Honolulu, seeks a temporary restraining order prohibiting CERN from proceeding with the accelerator until it has produced a safety report and an environmental assessment. It names the federal Department of Energy, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the National Science Foundation and CERN as defendants.

According to a spokesman for the Justice Department, which is representing the Department of Energy, a scheduling meeting has been set for June 16.

Why should CERN, an organization of European nations based in Switzerland, even show up in a Hawaiian courtroom?

In an interview, Mr. Wagner said, "I don't know if they're going to show up." CERN would have to voluntarily submit to the court's jurisdiction, he said, adding that he and Mr. Sancho could have sued in France or Switzerland, but to save expenses they had added CERN to the docket here. He claimed that a restraining order on Fermilab and the Energy Department, which helps to supply and maintain the accelerator's massive superconducting magnets, would shut down the project anyway.

James Gillies, head of communications at CERN, said the laboratory as of yet had no comment on the suit. "It's hard to see how a district court in Hawaii has jurisdiction over an intergovernmental organization in Europe," Mr. Gillies said.

"There is nothing new to suggest that the L.H.C. is unsafe," he said, adding that its safety had been confirmed by two reports, with a third on the way, and would be the subject of a discussion during an open house at the lab on April 6.

"Scientifically, we're not hiding away," he said.

But Mr. Wagner is not mollified. "They've got a lot of propaganda saying it's safe," he said in an interview, "but basically it's propaganda."

In an e-mail message, Mr. Wagner called the CERN safety review "fundamentally flawed" and said it had been initiated too late. The review process violates the European Commission's standards for adhering to the "Precautionary Principle," he wrote, "and has not been done by 'arms length' scientists."

Physicists in and out of CERN say a variety of studies, including an official CERN report in 2003, have concluded there is no problem. But just to be sure, last year the anonymous Safety Assessment Group was set up to do the review again.

"The possibility that a black hole eats up the Earth is too serious a threat to leave it as a matter of argument among crackpots," said Michelangelo Mangano, a CERN theorist who said he was part of the group. The others prefer to remain anonymous, Mr. Mangano said, for various reasons. Their report was due in January.

This is not the first time around for Mr. Wagner. He filed similar suits in 1999 and 2000 to prevent the Brookhaven National Laboratory from operating the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. That suit was dismissed in 2001. The collider, which smashes together gold ions in the hopes of creating what is called a "quark-gluon plasma," has been operating without incident since 2000.

Mr. Wagner, who lives on the Big Island of Hawaii, studied physics and did cosmic ray research at the University of California, Berkeley, and received a doctorate in law from what is now known as the University of Northern California in Sacramento. He subsequently worked as a radiation safety officer for the Veterans Administration.

Mr. Sancho, who describes himself as an author and researcher on time theory, lives in Spain, probably in Barcelona, Mr. Wagner said.

Doomsday fears have a long, if not distinguished, pedigree in the history of physics. At Los Alamos before the first nuclear bomb was tested, Emil Konopinski was given the job of calculating whether or not the explosion would set the atmosphere on fire.

The Large Hadron Collider is designed to fire up protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts before banging them together. Nothing, indeed, will happen in the CERN collider that does not happen 100,000 times a day from cosmic rays in the atmosphere, said Nima Arkani-Hamed, a particle theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

What is different, physicists admit, is that the fragments from cosmic rays will go shooting harmlessly through the Earth at nearly the speed of light, but anything created when the beams meet head-on in the collider will be born at rest relative to the laboratory and so will stick around and thus could create havoc.

The new worries are about black holes, which, according to some variants of string theory, could appear at the collider. That possibility, though a long shot, has been widely ballyhooed in many papers and popular articles in the last few years, but would they be dangerous?

According to a paper by the cosmologist Stephen Hawking in 1974, they would rapidly evaporate in a poof of radiation and elementary particles, and thus pose no threat. No one, though, has seen a black hole evaporate.

As a result, Mr. Wagner and Mr. Sancho contend in their complaint, black holes could really be stable, and a micro black hole created by the collider could grow, eventually swallowing the Earth.

But William Unruh, of the University of British Columbia, whose paper exploring the limits of Dr. Hawking's radiation process was referenced on Mr. Wagner's Web site, said they had missed his point. "Maybe physics really is so weird as to not have black holes evaporate," he said. "But it would really, really have to be weird."

Lisa Randall, a Harvard physicist whose work helped fuel the speculation about black holes at the collider, pointed out in a paper last year that black holes would probably not be produced at the collider after all, although other effects of so-called quantum gravity might appear.

As part of the safety assessment report, Dr. Mangano and Steve Giddings of the University of California, Santa Barbara, have been working intensely for the last few months on a paper exploring all the possibilities of these fearsome black holes. They think there are no problems but are reluctant to talk about their findings until they have been peer reviewed, Dr. Mangano said.

Dr. Arkani-Hamed said concerning worries about the death of the Earth or universe, "Neither has any merit." He pointed out that because of the dice-throwing nature of quantum physics, there was some probability of almost anything happening. There is some minuscule probability, he said, "the Large Hadron Collider might make dragons that might eat us up."

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


From: Natural Life
[Printer-friendly version]


By Wendy Priesnitz

Q: I've just heard that an organic certification agency has added nanotechnology to its list of forbidden things. What is it and should I be concerned about it?

A: Nanotechnology is a powerful platform for manipulating matter at the level of atoms and molecules in order to alter their properties. Nanomaterials are defined as particles having one or more dimensions of 100nm or less. One nanometer (nm) is one millionth of a millimeter and one billionth of a meter -- or approximately one 80,000th of the width of a human hair. A strand of DNA is 2.5nm wide and a red blood cell 7,000 nm.

The fundamental properties of matter change at the nanoscale. According to research conducted at the University of Rochester's Department of Environmental Medicine and published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2005, altered properties can include color, solubility, material strength, electrical conductivity, magnetic behavior, mobility (within the environment and within the human body), chemical reactivity and biological activity.

The manufacture of products using nanotechnology has exploded in recent years, creating something akin to a gold rush mentality. More than 720 products containing nanomaterials are now on the market. They include sunscreens and cosmetics, food additives, temperature- moderating clothing, food packaging, agricultural fertilizers, computer chips and mobile phones, inks, computer storage devices and displays, football stadium lights, tennis racquets, burn dressings and dental binding agents. Nanotechnology proponents envision it being used in the future to create cheaper ways of producing electricity from the sun, earlier and better diagnostics and treatment of diseases and water purification in developing countries. Currently, there is an estimated $9 billion a year worth of research being done.

There is no doubt that nanotechnology will have a massive impact on all industries and sectors of the economy, society and ecology. Opinion is divided as to whether these changes will be positive or negative. But there is enough concern that The Soil Association in the U.K. -- one of the world's pioneers of organic agriculture -- announced in January that it has banned human-made nano- materials from the organic cosmetics, foods and textiles that it certifies. A 2007 survey by 15 governments estimates there are at least 70 nanotech food- related applications already on the market and most major food and beverage corporations are investing in nanotech R&D.

In a statement, The Soil Association explained its motivation: "Our concern with nanoparticles lies in the fact that the properties of materials at this size can differ significantly from those at larger scales. Nanoparticles are so small they can sometimes bypass the body's natural protective boundaries such as skin...Industry and government are belatedly conducting safety tests that will take several years to reach firm conclusions. Therefore we've applied the precautionary principle."

And that's the problem: Products containing nanomaterials have been released commercially in the absence of regulatory oversight and in spite of warnings from some of the oldest and most respected scientific bodies in the world, such as the U.K.'s Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, which published a report in 2004 urging tighter controls on the industry, suggesting that nanomaterials be treated like new chemicals.

In particular, the report highlighted the potential risk of "free" nanoparticles that it said could escape into the atmosphere, be inhaled and have an effect on health, in the same way that ultra fine particles that are a by-produce of forest fires, volcanoes and processes like welding and vehicle combustion can be harmful to health. Professor Mark Welland, head of the University of Cambridge Nanoscale Science Laboratory, says that we know inhaled nanoparticles found in the bloodstream have dispersed throughout the brain. But, he adds, it is not known if this poses a health risk. According to a 2006 report prepared under the auspices of the U.S. Congress by that country's National Research Council, there is also evidence that engineered nanoparticles can have adverse effects on the health of laboratory animals, enter human cells and trigger chemical reactions in soil, interfering with biological and ecological processes. That report also urged precaution to protect the health and safety of workers, the public and the environment.

Oxford University's Dr. Alexis Vlandas is Nanotechnology spokesperson for International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility also worries about nanoparticles entering the human body. He says, "A much more proactive effort is needed to understand the complex phenomena (bio-accumulation, degradation, unforeseen chemical reactions, etc.) which could lead to negative impact on human health or the environment."

Nevertheless, there is still no legal requirement anywhere in the world for manufacturers to conduct new safety tests on nano-scale ingredients. Nor is there any requirement for manufacturers to demonstrate that they do not present a negative impact to the environment or to indicate the presence of nano-scale ingredients on product labels. In fact, there is not even an internationally accepted nomenclature, set of definitions and measurement systems for nanotechnology, although that is being worked on. And, finally, the social, economic and ethical challenges posed by nanotechnologies have yet to be addressed.

Nowhere are untested nanomaterials entering consumer products faster than in the personal care and cosmetics industries. And their use is of concern because these products are used daily and are designed to be used directly on the skin. They may be inhaled and are often ingested. While the jury is still out on whether nanomaterials can enter intact skin, studies show that broken skin is an ineffective barrier. This suggests that the presence of acne, eczema or shaving wounds is likely to enable the uptake of nanoparticles into the body. Furthermore, in preparing its 2006 report Nanomaterials, Sunscreen and Cosmetics: Small Ingredients, Big Risks, Friends of the Earth (FOE) found that many cosmetics and personal care products contain ingredients that intentionally act as "penetration enhancers," raising concerns they may increase the likelihood of skin uptake of nanomaterials and possible entry into the blood stream.

Nano-scale carbon molecules called "fullerenes" or "buckyballs" are among the ingredients currently being used in face creams and moisturizers. They have been found to cause brain damage in fish. Even low levels of exposure to fullerenes have been shown to damage human liver cells. Chemistry professor Tony Ryan of the University of Sheffield in England has questioned their safety. "I wouldn't put buckyballs anywhere near my face," he says. "We need to understand more about the toxicology. One of the potential dangers...is: Are we creating a new asbestos? The asbestosis response is based on the shape of the particle. Part of the issue is in the shape of the molecule and how they're introduced. We just need to be careful about the risk versus the benefit."

Nanoparticles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are used to make sunscreens transparent but, says FOE, they have been shown to be photoactive, producing free radicals and causing DNA damage to skin cells when exposed to UV light. In 2007, Consumer Reports asked an outside lab to test for nanoparticles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in eight sunscreens that listed either compound on their label. All eight contained the nanoparticles, yet only one disclosed their use.

The ETC Group, a pioneering Ottawa-based organization working on global issues like biotechnology, conservation of agricultural biodiversity and food security, takes a strong stand on nanotechnology. It cautions that while it offers opportunities for society, it also involves profound ethical, social and environmental risks, not only because it is an enabling technology to the biotech industry, but also because it involves atomic manipulation and will make possible the fusing of the biological world and the mechanical. In 2003, the ETC Group called for a moratorium on research involving molecular self-assembly and self-replication until the ramifications have been studied.

They're not the only organization calling for a moratorium. FOE-US has called for a moratorium on all commercial release of nanotechnological materials and products. They say, "Given the serious risks and impacts associated with nanotechnology's introduction, public involvement in decision making regarding nanotechnology and the introduction of a regulatory regime based on the precautionary principle must be prerequisites to further commercialization of nanoproducts."

In July of 2007, an international coalition of consumer, public health, environmental, labor, and civil society organizations spanning six continents called for strong, comprehensive oversight of nanotechnology and its products. Over 40 groups released a paper entitled Principles for the Oversight of Nanotechnologies and Nanomaterials, citing risks to the public, workers and the environment and demanding a moratorium on it pending research and regulation.

"Even though potential health hazards stemming from exposure have been clearly identified, there are no mandatory workplace measures that require exposures to be assessed, workers to be trained or control measures to be implemented," explains Bill Kojola of the AFL-CIO, which was part of the coalition. "This technology should not be rushed to market until these failings are corrected and workers assured of their safety."

"Nanomaterials are entering the environment during manufacture, use and disposal of hundreds of products, even though we have no way to track the effects of this potent new form of pollution," agrees Ian Illuminato of FOE. "By the time monitoring catches up to commerce, the damage will already have been done."

There is also a concern that nano- technology will provide the tools for continuous surveillance, with implications for civil liberties. And then there's the growing nano arms race, which could create a whole new generation of weapons of mass destruction including nano- biological weaponry. Over a decade ago, retired U.S. Admiral David Jeremiah told a conference on nanotechnology and global security that nanotechnology will prove more significant than nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, public pressure seems to be goading governments into action. The Environment, Healthy and Safety Division of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has made the safety of nanomaterials a priority. Canada, Germany, Japan, Australia the U.K. and the U.S. have created working groups to look into the implications of nanotechnology commercialization.

However, the amounts of money being spent are minuscule in comparison to the $6 billion spent last year by governments worldwide on nanotech. (The U.S. government's $5 billion between 2001 and 2006 is the biggest publicly funded science endeavor since the Apollo moon landing, with the largest portion funding military applications.)

In Canada, the Consumers Council has recently received a $60,000 grant from Canada's Office of Consumer Affairs to study the impact of nanotechnology on consumers and to improve the capacity of consumers to advocate re- garding regulatory decisions.

Here's hoping other organic certification agencies follow The Soil Association's lead and add nanotech to their lists of outlawed ingredients. Meanwhile, we think that product manufacturers and distributors must bear the burden of proof to demonstrate the safety of their products: If there is no independent health and safety data review for a nanotech product, then their products shouldn't be sold.

For references and contacts accompanying this article, read the March/April issue of Natural Life. Author Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with 30 years of experience. She has also authored nine books. Read her blog.

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


From: News24 (Cape Town, South Africa)
[Printer-friendly version]


By Michael Hamlyn

Johannesburg -- Government officials have admitted they are worried about the safety of drinking water drawn from the Wonderfonteinspruit, which has been contaminated with radioactivity for 40 years.

Giving a written reply to a Parliamentary question, Water Affairs Minister Lindiwe Hendricks said that while there was reason for concern, the 40-year-old problem had not produced any conclusive results, or any reason for immediate action.

"However, in order to conform to the precautionary principle, further investigations are in process," she said.

She told her questioner, Gareth Morgan of the Democratic Alliance, in her reply published on Monday that studies undertaken by the various organisations over a period of time concluded that the radioactivity levels in the river water in the area were well within the water quality safety standards.

Risk of exposure varies

"However, there is a concern regarding elevated levels of uranium and heavy metals in the sediment," she said.

"The risk of exposure to humans and animals can be increased if the sediments are stirred up and are in suspension during swimming or when cattle are drinking from the river."

The Wonderfonteinspruit starts near Randfontein in the north and moves all the way down south to Potchefstroom.

Hendricks said the most-recent comprehensive study, done by the Water Research Commission in 2006, concluded that the present status would remain as long as the sediment stayed "wet" and that, chemically, the water was fit for consumption.

This conclusion was supported by the recent Brenk Report commissioned by the national nuclear regulator in 2007.

Unfortunately that report in question is based on only a few samples taken and the interpretations in the study are seen as premature at this stage.

Nevertheless, a public health study looking at blood and urine samples compared 36 individuals exposed to the "contaminated" Wonderfonteinspruit with 24 individuals exposed to the "clean" Mooi River in 2002 and, in essence, no difference was found in the profiles.

"The department has paid serious attention to the concerns raised and, as a result, has consulted widely.

Hot-spot areas will be targeted

"There are a number of different views on the subject and all are being evaluated," said the minister.

A technical working group has been established and has appointed a team of specialists who will identify and rank hot-spot areas targeted for remedial action.

"This team of specialists will also provide the regulators with a remediation plan for identified hot spots," said Hendricks.

"The regulators intend to embark on the clean-up action in collaboration with the mining interest group in the area."

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


From: Radio CKFR (Kelowna, B.C., Canada)
[Printer-friendly version]


By David Suzuki Foundation

OTTAWA -- A new report on Quebec's current provincial ban on the use and sale of several lawn pesticides urges other provinces to follow Quebec's lead.

"Quebec has paved the way for provincial action to protect citizens from harmful pesticides. Other provinces can build on Quebec's experience," says Lisa Gue, environmental health policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation. "Lawn and garden pesticides pose needless risks to health and the environment."

The David Suzuki Foundation and Equiterre, a leading environmental group in Quebec, teamed up to produce Pesticide Free? Oui! -- An Analysis of Quebec's Pesticides Management Code. The report assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the Quebec regulation, recommends measures to improve the Code and encourages other provinces to adopt similar policies to ban lawn and garden pesticides. The study also suggests areas of improvement to bolster the Quebec ban and its implementation.

Passed in 2003 and fully implemented in 2006, Quebec's Pesticides Management Code prohibits the use of 20 pesticide active ingredients on public and private lawns across Quebec, and the retail sale of products containing these ingredients. The prohibited active ingredients are found in approximately 200 pesticide products, including the popular lawn herbicide 2,4-D.

According to the report, the Code's strengths include its prohibition on sales of the targeted pesticides -- as well as their use -- and its strong basis in the precautionary principle (a rule that states that in the absence of scientific consensus, protection of health and the environment is paramount).

"Quebec has realized dramatic reductions in household pesticide use, but there's more to be done," says Lova Ramanitrarivo, project leader with Equiterre and principle author of the report. "In particular, the ban should extend to all lawn and garden pesticides and enforced more rigorously."

Key recommendations for Ontario and other provinces considering bans on cosmetic pesticides include:

** using the precautionary principle as the guiding rule;

** structuring the ban with reference to a "white list" of products authorized for sale and use;

** extending the ban to all cosmetic uses of pesticides, province- wide; and,

** developing a thorough and effective enforcement program.

Quebec is currently the only province that restricts the use and sale of pesticides registered by the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency. The Government of Ontario has committed to introduce legislation banning the cosmetic use of pesticides this spring. The Government of Prince Edward Island is also studying the issue. Across Canada, 140 municipalities have adopted bylaws restricting the use of pesticides on public and private property. Municipalities, however, generally lack jurisdiction to regulate pesticide sales.

At present, there are approximately 1,000 commercial pesticide products for sale in Canada that cannot be sold in other nations because of health and environmental concerns.

Copyright 2008 Astral Media

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


From: ICIS news
[Printer-friendly version]


WASHINGTON -- As several thousand executives gather in San Antonio, Texas, this weekend for the annual International Petrochemical Conference, industry leaders say they are facing a raft of challenges from climate change, energy costs, security mandates and a rising tide of global regulatory initiatives.

Sponsored by the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA), the 33rd annual petchems meeting also comes at a time when the US industry is anticipating what NPRA president Charles Drevna calls "one of the most politically uncertain years that we have experienced in a long time".

The outcome of the US national elections on 4 November this year could significantly alter the regulatory landscape and business environment for chemical companies.

"The US Congress began this year to consider climate change legislation that could dramatically impact feedstock supplies and cost to operate in the US," Drevna said, referring to bills pending in the Senate that would impose a cap and trade emissions control mandate on US manufacturing, transportation, power generation and natural gas production.

The controversial cap and trade legislation is aimed at reducing industrial and vehicle emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHG) in hopes of halting and perhaps reversing global warming.

Chemical companies worry that a federal mandate to force emissions reductions will among other things cause a stampede of power companies away from coal to natural gas as a fuel, putting major additional demand and pricing pressure on that principal feedstock for the US petrochemicals industry.

"US natural gas prices remain high," Drevna noted, with gas in the $9/m Btu range compared with $2/m Btu in 1999, "and little is being done on Capitol Hill to open up domestic exploration to increase supply."

Cap and trade legislation -- seen as having little chance of becoming law while Republican George Bush is president -- is seen as more likely if Democrats capture the White House and increase their majorities in both the House and Senate.

"Climate change, chemical risk management and security policies will undoubtedly affect our future business practices," Drevna said, "and what those policies will look like will in large part depend on the outcome of the November elections."

In addition to cap and trade, many in Congress want a major rewrite for the principal US chemicals regulatory system, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). That statute has not seen any major changes since first enacted in 1976, and some on Capitol Hill argue it should be recast along the lines of the European Union's REACH programme.

Drevna warns that REACH -- the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals -- reflects an effort by environmental activists "to bring their own version of the precautionary principle, a thinly disguised synonym for product substitution, to the global arena".

Security issues also pose an increasing risk for US chemicals with a new effort afoot in the US Congress to revise the year-old federal mandate for antiterrorism precautions at high-risk chemical facilities. The pending legislation would authorise federal regulators to impose inherently safer technology (IST) measures on high-risk facilities on the theory that less toxic feedstocks and lower intensity production processes would make such sites less attractive as terror targets.

NPRA spokesman Bill Holbrook said the association's member firms are concerned about the IST provisions, which he termed "simply additional new environmental rules masquerading as so-called security standards".

More than 3,200 industry officials attending this year's conference will hear presentations on petrochemical technology and innovation advances and supply chain challenges. The political uncertainties will be reviewed by pollsters Peter Hart and Frank Luntz along with former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Among industry executives at the IPC will be 1,200 international officials representing 48 countries, Holbrook said.

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


From: Reason Magazine
[Printer-friendly version]


By Kerry Howley

In May 2002, in the midst of a severe food shortage in sub-Saharan Africa, the government of Zimbabwe turned away 10,000 tons of corn from the World Food Program (WFP). The WFP then diverted the food to other countries, including Zambia, where 2.5 million people were in need. The Zambian government locked away the corn, banned its distribution, and stopped another shipment on its way to the country. "Simply because my people are hungry," President Levy Mwanawasa later said, "is no justification to give them poison."

The corn came from farms in the United States, where most corn produced -- and consumed -- comes from seeds that have been engineered to resist some pests, and thus qualifies as genetically modified. Throughout the 90s, genetically modified foods were seen as holding promise for the farmers of Africa, so long as multinationals would invest in developing superior African crops rather than extend the technology only to the rich. When Zambia and Zimbabwe turned away food aid, simmering controversy over the crops themselves brimmed over and seeped into almost every African state. Cast as toxic to humans, destructive to the environment, and part of a corporate plot to immiserate the poor, cutting edge farming technology is most feared where it is most needed. As Robert Paarlberg notes in his new book, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa (Harvard University Press), in 2004 the Sudanese government "took time out from its genocidal suppression of a rebellion in Darfur to issue a memorandum requiring that all food aid brought into the country should be certified as free of any GM ingredients."

Starved for Science includes forwards by both Jimmy Carter and Norman Borlaug, the architect of Asia's Green Revolution and the man credited with saving more human lives than anyone else in history. Paarlberg, a Professor of Political Science at Wellesley and a specialist in agricultural policy, wants the West to help small African farmers obtain promising technologies just as it helped Asia discover biological breakthroughs in the 60s and 70s. Instead, he says, a coalition of European governments and African elites are promoting a Western vision of rustic, low-productivity labor.

reason: Was there a particular experience with African farmers that led you to write this book?

Robert Paarlberg: Partly it was the strong impression made on me by my own visits to rural Africa, working with African organizations, working with USAID, working with International Food Policy Research Institute. I started visiting small farms in Africa 15 years ago. I'd seen a lot of poor farmers in Asia and Latin America but absolutely nothing like this. There was simply no uptake of any modern productivity-enhancing technologies at all in some cases. And I wondered why I hadn't been aware of this. And then, when I saw more and more narrative in the NGO community and the donor community that was frankly hostile to science, I thought "I have to put this down and write a book for younger people in the donor community who may not remember the importance of technology uptake in Asian agriculture 40 years ago."

reason: You suggest that your understanding of modern ideas about food production arises from interactions with your students. What is it that they want?

Paarlberg: My students know just what kind of food system they want: a food system that isn't based on industrial scale monoculture. They want instead small farms built around nature imitating polycultures. They don't want chemical use; they certainly don't want genetic engineering. They want slow food instead of fast food. They've got this image of what would be better than what we have now. And what they probably don't realize is that Africa is an extreme version of that fantasy. If we were producing our own food that way, 60 percent of us would still be farming and would be earning a dollar a day, and a third of us would be malnourished. I'm trying to find some way to honor the rejection that my students have for some aspects of modern farming, but I don't want them to fantasize about the exact opposite.

reason: Can you give an example of a genetically modified seed or organism, something in use today?

Paarlberg: Bt crops have been engineered to contain a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium that expresses a certain protein that cannot be digested by caterpillars. Mammals can digest the protein with absolutely no problem, but caterpillars cannot. When the caterpillars eat the plant, they die.

What's wonderful about this is that it's so precisely targeted at the insects eating the plant. The other insects in the field aren't affected. Using conventional corn instead of Bt corn, you have to spray the whole field and you end up killing a lot of non-targeted species. With this variety, you don't have to spray.

reason: That sounds less scary than "Genetically Modified Organism."

Paarlberg: The book makes the argument that the overregulation of this technology in Europe and the anxieties felt about it in the United States are not so much a reflection of risks, because there aren't any documented risks from any GM crops on the market. I explain that reaction through the absence of direct benefit. The technology is directly beneficial to only a tiny number of citizens in rich countries -- soybean farmers, corn farmers, a few seed companies, patent holders. Consumers don't get a direct benefit at all, so it doesn't cost them anything to drive it off the market with regulations. The problem comes when the regulatory systems created in rich countries are then exported to regions like Africa, where two thirds of the people are farmers, and where they would be the direct beneficiaries.

reason: How pervasive are genetically modified foods in the U.S.?

Paarlberg: Roughly 90 percent of the cotton and soybeans produced in the US are genetically modified. Fifty or 70 percent of the corn is genetically modified. If you look at the products on a retail store shelf, probably 70 percent of them contain some ingredients from genetically modified crops. Mostly corn or soybeans.

reason: Are there documented safety risks that merit caution?

Paarlberg: There aren't any. It's like the first ten years of aviation without a plane crash.

reason: What about environmental risks? Don't GM crops affect surrounding plantlife?

Paarlberg: The only impacts they have different from conventional crops are beneficial to the environment. They allow you to control weeds and insects with fewer sprayings of toxic chemicals. And they don't require as many trips through the field with your diesel tractor, so you burn less fossil fuel. And there is more carbon sequestered because you're not tilling the soil the way you otherwise would.

There are environmental impacts; there is gene flow. The pollen from a genetically modified maize plant will flow into a neighboring field and will fertilize the crops in that neighboring field. Some of the seeds, as a consequence, will contain the transgene, but that's no different from pollen from a conventional maize plant flowing into the next field. It's only if you decide arbitrarily to define gene flow from genetically modified crops as "contamination" and flow from all other crops as natural. Only then does it start to become describable as an adverse effect.

The worst environmental damage ever done by American agricultural was the dustbowl of the 1930s, when we plowed up the southern plains to grow wheat, and all the topsoil blew away. The way we increased production back then was to expand crop area, which was environmentally disastrous. It was a calamity. That was the way we tried to increase production before we had high yielding crops, before we had high yielding wheat varieties, before we had hybrid maize, before we learned to increase the productivity of the land already under cultivation.

reason: Can you give us a sense of what an average African farmer in, say, Zambia, is currently working with?

Paarlberg: It would be a woman and her children primarily, and they would plant not a hybrid maize, but a traditional openly pollinated variety, and they would time the preparation of the soil and planting as best they could for when they thought the rains would come. But the rains might not come in time, or they might be too heavy and wash the seeds out of the ground. It's a risky endeavor. They can't afford fertilizer, and it's too risky to use fertilizer because in a drought the maize would shrivel up and the fertilizer would be wasted. They don't have any irrigation. As a consequence, even in a good year their yields per hectare will be only about one third as high as in Asian countries, 1/10 as high as in the United States.

reason: Just as it used to be in Asia.

Paarlberg: Everywhere!

reason: Right, everywhere. But Asia has moved on in recent memory. The Green Revolution introduced new biological breakthroughs to Asian agriculture to the point where no one today thinks of South Korea as a rural backwater. Why was Africa not a part of this?

Paarlberg: One reason is that Africa is not easily irrigated. The big irrigated crops like rice aren't to be found in Africa and the big investments in the Green Revolution went into improving Asian crops like rice. The crops Africans grow weren't the crops that were being improved during the green revolution.

But I don't blame it all on the Asia-focus of the original green revolution; we have had plenty of time to invest in scientific research for Africa's crops, and to make investments in rural public goods like roads or power to make it affordable for African farmers to purchase fertilizer. But African governments have not done that job. In my book I show that typically African governments will spend less than 5 percent of their budget on agriculture even though that's where two thirds of their citizens work. And if you don't have larger public sector investments than that, there is just not going to be any uptake in the countryside. But then I go around and show that you can't blame African governments, entirely, because prosperous donor countries are no longer supporting agriculture in Africa.

reason: No African government other than South Africa's has made it legal to plant GMOs. You call this "out of character" for the same governments.

Paarlberg: They have not yet enacted the law, set up the biosafety committee, and granted approval, which is the laborious process that [the United Nations Environmental Program] and the European governments have coached them into adopting.

It's interesting. In no other area are governments in Africa particularly concerned about hypothetical environmental risks. They know better than to invoke the precautionary principle when it comes to unsafe food in open air markets. They know that they need to first get rid of actual food shortages and raise income; then and only then can they afford to impose the same extremely high standards of food safety on open air markets that are imposed on supermarkets in Europe. Yet curiously when it comes to GMOs they adopt the highly precautionary European standard, which makes it impossible to put these products on the market at all. I take that as evidence that this is not an authentic African response, it's a response imported from Europe.

reason: So the romanticization of bucolic farm landscapes unmarred by scientific advance has an American and European pedigree.

Paarlberg: It's not what we do at home -- only two percent of agricultural products in the US are organically grown. And many of those that are organically grown are grown on industrial scale organic farms in California that don't bear any resemblance to small bucolic farms. But it's the image we promote in our new cultural narrative. It's something that affects the way we give foreign assistance.

reason: Many of the anti-agricultural science gurus you mention in your book have a spiritual dimension. Can you talk a bit about Sylvester Graham?

Paarlberg: Sylvester Graham, the father of the modern graham cracker, was opposed to the modern flour milling industry. He didn't like the industrialization of bread production, and he wanted women to go back to grinding flour. He was a religious man, a minister, and he had all of the narrow minded prejudices we might associate with a New England clergyman from the 19th century. He thought that women should stay in the home, he believed people should be vegetarians because that would keep their sexual appetite back. We sometimes forget what goes along with the food purist zealotry. It's often zealotry about more than just a certain kind of food to eat.

In Zambia today there are expatriate Jesuits from the United States who have come to believe genetic engineering is against God's teaching, though this is not a belief that is embraced by the Vatican. They believe that all living things, including plants, have a right not to have their genetic makeup modified. Of course we have been modifying the genetic makeup of plants ever since we domesticated them 10,000 years ago, but these particular fathers are focused only on genetic engineering.

reason: Isn't it paternalistic to blame Europeans for the decisions of African governments? Is this something African elites are at least as complicit in?

Paarlberg: It's a codependency. The African elites depend upon Europe for financial assistance, they depend upon European export markets, they depend on NGOs for technical assistance, it's just easier for them to follow the European lead than to go against that lead. And to some extent the European governments depend upon having dependents in Africa that will, despite the difficult experience of colonization, continue to imitate and validate and honor European culture and taste.

reason: What exactly have European NGOs done to discourage productivity in farming? You quote Doug Parr, a chemist at Greenpeace, arguing that the de facto organic status of farms in Africa is an opportunity to lock in organic farming, since African farmers have yet to advance beyond that.

Paarlberg: Some of it is well intentioned. The organic farming movement believes this is an appropriate corrective to the chemical intensive farming that they see in Europe. In Europe, where prosperous consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic products, it sometimes makes sense to use a more costly production process. So they think, "Well it's the wave of the future here in Europe, so it should be the future in Africa as well."

So they tell Africans who don't use enough fertilizer that instead of using more they should go to zero and certify themselves as organic. That's probably the most damaging influence -- discouraging Africans from using enough fertilizer to restore the nutrients they mine out of their soil. They classify African farmers as either certified organic, or de facto organic. Indeed, many are de facto organic. And their goal is not to increase the productivity of the organic farmers, but to certify them as organic.

I just find that to be lacking in moral clarity.

reason: But there are functioning organic farms. If I decide to buy only organic food from Africa, what will I be buying?

Paarlberg: It wouldn't be grown by small fair-trade-type poor farmers. It would be grown through a vertically integrated, probably European, company that would bring in the machinery, bring in the seeds, bring in the fertilizers, set up a production system that would more nearly resemble a colonial-era plantation than a small independent African farm.

reason: We've seen similar resistance to GMOs in India and Brazil, both of which now have legalized the use of genetically modified crops. What happened?

Paarlberg: Farmers were planting them illicitly before the final approval -- that's one reason they were forced into the approval. The technology worked so well that farmers were planting them on their own and you couldn't criminalize all Brazilian soybean growers so you had to approve them. Similarly in India, Bt cotton spread on its own and performed so well that the government was eventually shamed into approving it.

reason: You aren't just calling for people to get out of the way. You want increased aid for agricultural research. But why would any of this require aid? If it's going to prove profitable, shouldn't the incentive for private investment be there?

Paarlberg: The farmers who need the technology in Africa don't have enough purchasing power to be of interest to private companies. Or they're growing crops that aren't a part of a commercial seed market that would interest private seed companies. The only way to reach them, really, is to consider the crops that they grow, for example tropical white maize or cassava. It's a little bit like the orphan disease problem. It's really something that has to be done as a public good by the public sector.

That's how the green revolution proceeded in India in the 1960s. It was a wonderful success, and it wasn't really driven by the private sector. It was driven by philanthropic foundations and public investment. Also you need not just seed improvement, but more rural farm-to-market roads, electrification, and things that really governments and only governments are incentivized and capable of doing.

There was a time, before scare stories about technology spread, when the concern was a much more legitimate one: that we've handed this technology over to private companies to develop, and they won't have any incentive to get it to Africa. And to some extent that's still a legitimate concern. There was never any fear that Brazilian farmers or Canadian farmers wouldn't be able to get the technology, because they're big commercial growers. The concern was originally that Africans would want the technology but wouldn't be able to get it because they didn't have the purchasing power or the investment climate that could attract private companies.

reason: The book is 200 pages of frustration. Are there any glimmers of hope ahead?

Paarlberg: Just last week in Nairobi the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and African Agricultural Technology Foundation announced that they would be going forward with the drought-tolerant maize project that I describe in chapter 5 of my book. I'm very pleased that the Gates Foundation has seen the opportunity that this new technology provides. It would be too bad if drought tolerant corn were being grown in Iowa in 2010 and not available to the farmer who really needed it in Africa.

Drought in Africa pushes small farmers back into poverty whenever it strikes. They have to sell off all their household possessions to buy the food their families need until the next season. It blocks the escape from poverty that they might otherwise achieve. Anything that puts a safety net under crop yields is going to protect small African farmers from that periodic decapitalization and let them start accumulating assets for a change.

Kerry Howley is a senior editor at reason.

Copyright 2008 Reason Magazine.

Return to Table of Contents Read or make comments


  Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical
  examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in
  action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making
  decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to
  answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary
  principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

  We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we  
  believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what
  their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed
  to know the arguments used by slaveholders.

  Rachel's Precaution Reporter is published as often as necessary to
  provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

  As you come across stories that illustrate the precautionary 
  principle -- or the need for the precautionary principle -- 
  please Email them to us at rpr@rachel.org.

  Peter Montague - peter@rachel.org

  Tim Montague   -   tim@rachel.org


  To start your own free Email subscription to Rachel's Precaution
  Reporter send any Email to one of these addresses:

  Full HTML edition: rpr-subscribe@pplist.net
  Table of Contents (TOC) edition: rpr-toc-subscribe@pplist.net

  In response, you will receive an Email asking you to confirm that
  you want to subscribe.

  To unsubscribe, send any email to rpr-unsubscribe@pplist.net
  or to rpr-toc-unsubscribe@pplist.net, as appropriate.


Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (21)