Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#482 - The Pesticide Failure

According to the FBI, rifle fire was responsible for 723 homicides in
the U.S. in 1994.[1] Assault rifles are a subclass of rifles, so
homicides by assault rifle must number fewer than 723. The exact number
is not known because no government agency keeps national statistics on
assault-weapon-related crimes. However, based on state and municipal
surveys, and police records, several scholars and advocates have
estimated that assault rifles are used in about 1% of all homicides,
which would make them responsible for about 250 deaths in the U.S. each
year.[2] In an effort to save these 250 lives, Congress in August,
1994, banned the sale of assault rifles.[3]

Assault rifles kill an estimated 250 people each year and pesticides
kill an estimated 10,400 people each year (see REHW #481), yet assault
rifles have been banned while the use of pesticides is expanding. How
does such a thing happen?

Could it be because assault-weapon opponents called for a ban and
mobilized for a ban, whereas most pesticide opponents have never taken
such a clear, firm position? For years, most anti-pesticide activists
have worked to restrict the use of pesticides through regulations based
on good science. As a general strategy these activists have argued that
6 parts per million (ppm) is safe but 8 ppm is not, and they have
successfully urged legislators and regulators to adopt this case-by-
case, incremental approach. This general strategy, weighing the hazards
of 6-vs-8-ppm, has now been embodied in a dozen major environmental
laws, including the nation's pesticide laws, and has given rise to a
new industry called "risk assessment." Major universities now have
programs dedicated to teaching bright young scientists how to argue
that 6 (or 8) ppm creates an "acceptable risk" (or an "unacceptable
risk," depending on who is paying for the study).

As a tactic, for 25 years most anti-pesticide activists have written
long reports proving that less is better. As a result, they have
occasionally gotten their message into the back pages of the
newspapers. These activists can point to risk assessments showing that
pesticides are dangerous in many ways--dangerous to the people who eat
pesticide residues on their food, especially children; dangerous to
farmers and farm workers, and their families; and dangerous to
wildlife. Unfortunately, none of this has done much good. Legislators
and regulators have adopted the 6-vs-8-ppm approach, yet pesticide use
has continued to increase in the U.S., and is rocketing upwards
worldwide.

It is easy to show that pesticides are dangerous. There is a large body
of scientific literature to point to. But it doesn't matter. The
agrichemical corporations are more persuasive than the activists. The
corporations spend huge sums re-electing members of Congress and
"communicating" to the public that pesticidal poisons (or "crop
protection tools," as they are known in the industry) have never harmed
anyone. Their linchpin argument is a scare: the cost of food would go
through the roof without pesticides. (Never mind that this economic
argument is bogus. Since the early 1930s the federal government has
maintained a 'price support' program, paying farmers not to grow
certain crops, intending to keep the price of food artificially high,
because American agriculture is so productive that, without price
supports, the abundance of crops, coupled with the law of supply and
demand, would drive the price of food so low that many farmers couldn't
survive, which might endanger the nation's food supply.)

In any case, the public hears from industry that pesticides are
essential. Life would be impossible without them, we are told. The
public knows in its bones that pesticide residues are dangerous, and
many people can remember a time when relatively few pesticides were
used to grow the nation's food. Nevertheless, the anti-pesticide
movement has never caught the public's imagination, chiefly because of
a rigid adherence to the regulatory strategy. (One noteworthy exception
is the case of the toxic growth-regulator, Alar, in which the Natural
Resources Defense Council [NRDC] took its message to the public via TV
using Meryl Streep, the movie star, as a spokesperson. Facing CBS News
cameras, Streep said that Alar --a cancer-causing chemical --was
measurable in apple juice bottled for children. (This alarming news was
true. And EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] has since
reaffirmed its conclusion that Alar is carcinogenic.) Streep's
appearance on CBS created a public outcry against Alar, followed almost
immediately by a voluntary abandonment of Alar by the apple-growing
industry, which has continued to grow apples profitably without Alar
ever since. The food industry retaliated by suing both CBS News and
NRDC. The food industry lost these lawsuits, but their publicity
machine still managed to leave the impression in most peoples' minds
that the Alar "scare" was not justified by the facts. Right-wing
organizations, such as the Council for the Advancement of Science
Writing, have promoted this impression in the minds of journalists, who
have spread it to the public. As a result, NRDC and others of like mind
felt burned and have now generally stopped taking their case directly
to the public. They are back to debating 6-vs-8-ppm with the corporate
PR-scientists and their acolytes within EPA.)

Simply put, activists cut the pesticide issue in ways that don't get
the general public fired up. The public can't get involved in a
discussion of 6-vs-8-ppm. Even if the details of the argument were
understandable to most people, which they are not, the goal of
achieving 6 instead of 8 parts of poison in your soup doesn't seem
interesting, exciting, or worth much effort. This leaves the debate in
the hands of professional environmentalists and professional PR-
scientists employed by the chemical and food corporations. These groups
both make hefty salaries debating each other, while the public
continues to be poisoned bit by bit without knowing what's going on.

Isn't it time the anti-pesticide "movement" recognized that its past
efforts have failed because its strategies, its tactics and even its
goals have been ill chosen? Likewise, isn't it time that some of the
groups trying to stop the use of bovine growth hormone (known as RBGH
or BST) learned the same lesson: debating risk and advocating better
regulation or labeling simply hasn't worked AND CAN'T WORK. The public
can't get excited about this approach, and without support from a
goodly (and vocal) portion of the public, no anti-pesticide or anti-
growth-hormone-in-milk campaign can succeed. This all seems obvious,
yet for 25 years the 6-vs-8-ppm approach has been tried and tried and
tried again. An entire generation of environmental scientist-lawyer-
activists has raised families and put its children through college
pursuing this failed strategy, working to achieve goals hardly worth
achieving. In recent years large private foundations have been funding
yet another "pesticide coalition" to pursue the 6-vs-8-ppm strategy
with renewed vigor. This coalition is spending bundles of money,
diverting the energies of the activist community (especially the grass-
roots activists, who are wasting time AND losing funding to the big
enviro groups as they participate together in the coalition), and
preventing better approaches from being tried. Whether they recognize
it or not, these foundations have put themselves and their coalition
partners on the same page with the pesticide corporations, who thrive
and prosper so long as the debate is restricted to 6-vs-8-ppm.
Meanwhile the coalition's knowledgeable activists seem reluctant to
point out that this emperor is parading in the buff.

The growing group of people who want to get dioxin out of the food
supply (see REHW #479) need to examine these histories. The problem of
pesticides and the problem of dioxin have similar features. How do
people get dioxin into their bodies? According to EPA, we get about 90%
of our daily dioxin dose by consuming meat, fish and dairy products
(milk, cream, cheese, ice cream, ice milk, etc.).[4]

The source of 95% of the dioxin in our food is incinerators, according
to EPA officials.[5] One obvious goal, therefore, should be to shut
down all incinerators. (An alternative is to phase out chlorine as an
industrial feed stock because chlorine gives rise to dioxin when it
finds its way into an incinerator. This is a far larger goal, but would
provide many additional benefits.) And who should be advocating for
these goals? The food industry, of course. But they're not, because
activists have not focused public attention on the very real dangers of
dioxin in food. If the food industry were to feel some heat, some loss
of profits, because of the deadly dioxin in the food they're selling,
they would be motivated to go after the sources of dioxin. Suddenly the
anti-dioxin movement would have some new, powerful (though
uncomfortable), allies. It would be a new day.

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice UNIFORM
CRIME REPORTS FOR THE UNITED STATES 1994 (Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Government Printing Office, 1995), Table 2.10 on pg. 18.

[2] See David B. Kopel, "Assault Weapons," in David B. Kopel, editor,
GUNS; WHO SHOULD HAVE THEM? (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995),
pgs. 159-232; and see David B. Kopel, "Statement of David B. Kopel,"
ASSAULT WEAPONS: A VIEW FROM THE FRONT LINES; HEARING BEFORE THE
COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY, UNITED STATES SENATE, ONE HUNDRED THIRD
CONGRESS, ON S. 639... AND S. 653... AUGUST 3, 1993, SERIAL NO. J-103-
25 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994), pgs. 86-
90; see also pgs. 128 and 132 which are a reprint of pages from Gary
Kleck, POINT BLANK; GUNS AND VIOLENCE IN AMERICA (New York: Aldine De
Gruyter, date unknown [1992? 1993?]). Kleck is a professor at Florida
State University in Tallahassee. Kopel is employed by the Cato
Institute in D.C. And see Edward C. Ezell, "Testimony to be delivered
to the Constitution Subcommittee, Senate Committee on the Judiciary,
May 10, 1989," in ASSAULT WEAPONS, HEARINGS BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON
THE CONSTITUTION OF THE COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY, UNITED STATES
SENATE, ONE HUNDRED FIRST CONGRESS, FIRST SESSION, ON S. 386... AND S.
474 FEBRUARY 10 AND MAY 5, 1989, SERIAL NO. J-101-1 (Washington, D.C.:
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990), pgs. 384-393. When he
testified, Ezell was Curator of the National Firearms Collection at the
Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. See also
Kathleen Maguire and Ann L. Pastore, editors, SOURCEBOOK OF CRIMINAL
JUSTICE STATISTICS -1994 [U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice
Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics NCJ-154591] (Washington, D.C.:
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995), Table 3-99 on pg. 318. And,
finally, see Council on Scientific Affairs, American Medical
Association "Assault Weapons as a Public Health Hazard in the United
States," JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION Vol. 267 No. 22
(June 10, 1992), pgs. 3067-3070.

[3] Details of the ban are discussed in Jeffrey Y. Muchnick, "The
Assault Weapons Ban--Saving Lives," UNIVERSITY OF DAYTON LAW REVIEW
Vol. 20 No. 2 (Winter 1995), pgs. 641-651.

[4] Michael J. DeVito and others, "Comparisons of Estimated Human Body
Burdens of Dioxinlike Chemicals and TCDD Body Burdens in Experimentally
Exposed Animals," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES Vol. 103, No. 9
(September, 1995), pgs. 820-831.

[5] Lynn Goldman, "Statement of Lynn Goldman, M.D., Assistant
Administrator for Prevention, Pesticides and Toxics, U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, September 13, 1994." (Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, September 13, 1994), gives the 95%
figure.

Descriptor terms: mortality statistics; pesticides; assault rifles;
risk assessment; agriculture; farming; alar; nrdc; meryl streep;
apples; dioxin strategy; food safety;