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#481 - Banana Laws and Potato Heads, 14-Feb-1996

The food industry went ballistic last month when Food & Water, Inc., a
grass-roots advocacy group in Walden, Vermont, and Environmental
Research Foundation in Annapolis, Maryland, published an ad in
SUPERMARKET NEWS comparing pesticide deaths to deaths by assault
rifles, concluding that, "More people are killed by their salad." (See
REHW #480.)

For the past five years, the food industry --especially the produce
industry (fruits and vegetables) --has been developing a campaign
called "5-a-Day." They want everyone to eat five helpings of fruits and
vegetables each day. This is a multi-million-dollar food-industry
campaign, directed by the Produce for Better Health Foundation. Because
we read food industry publications like PRODUCE NEWS, SUPERMARKET NEWS
and THE PACKER, we know that the food corporations are banking on this
campaign to provide greatly increased profits for agrichemical food

That's why they went nuts when Food & Water struck their Achilles heel,
which is the fact that most of the fruits and vegetables in
supermarkets today contain pesticide residues that can cause disease.
This a dirty little secret that the food industry doesn't want anyone
talking about.

In fact, agribusiness corporations are so eager to close off discussion
of toxic pesticide residues on food that the industry has been
campaigning state by state in recent years to pass "food disparagement"
laws making it a crime to criticize agricultural products without "a
sound scientific basis." Such "banana laws" (as they are called) are
now on the books in eleven states (Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida,
Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and
Texas) and they are under consideration in California, Delaware,
Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina,
and Washington state.[1] Further, the food industry is trying to stick
a "food disparagement" provision into the 1996 Farm Bill,[2] which is
still being bitterly debated in Congress as we go to press.[3] It seems
clear that these banana laws will be declared unconstitutional when
they are challenged in court, but it will be a long, expensive fight--
probably costing upwards of half a million dollars to litigate. As a
result, such laws will very likely have a chilling effect on
journalists and others who might be inclined to discuss the possibility
that pesticide-laced foods aren't as healthy for you as fruits and
vegetables that are free of poisonous residues.

Proponents of banana laws openly admit that their purpose is to silence
food-safety activists.[4] In Florida, anyone found guilty of
"agricultural disparagement" must pay a fine equal to three times the
estimated dollar amount of damage done to agribusiness plaintiffs. The
Georgia statute defines disparagement as "the willful or malicious
dissemination to the public in any manner of false information that a
perishable food product or commodity is not safe for human consumption"
and defines false information as "not based on reasonable and reliable
scientific inquiry, facts, or data." It's anybody's guess what
"reasonable" and "reliable" mean. We can recall a time not long ago
when "reasonable" and "reliable" data showed that diethylstilbestrol
(DES) and DDT were both "safe" for humans and the environment.
Unfortunately those reasonable and reliable data were quite wrong.[5]

The food industry flatly denies that anyone has ever been harmed by the
roughly 600 million pounds of toxic chemicals that have been
intentionally sprayed on the nation's food and fiber crops each year
for the past 50 years. Bob Carey, president of the Produce Marketing
Association in Newark, Delaware, told SUPERMARKET NEWS that he was
"dismayed and appalled" by the Food & Water advertisement which said
thousands of Americans are killed each year by pesticide residues.[6]
"No one... has ever been harmed by eating fresh produce properly
treated with crop protection tools," Carey told the NEWS. He told the
PACKER, "Produce on store shelves and on restaurant plates is safe."[7]
Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable
Association called the statements in the ad "pure fabrication."[7]
David Moore, president of the Western Growers Association said that
comparing the hazards of fresh produce to assault weapons was
"tantamount to yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater." Falsely yelling
"fire" in a crowded theater has been used by the U.S. Supreme Court as
a legal test for determining when society has the right to limit a
person's Constitutional right of free speech.

But suppose it is true that pesticides kill more people than assault
rifles do each year. Then Mr. Carey, Mr. Stenzel, Mr. Moore are making
false statements that would tend to harm people by inducing them to
consume toxic chemicals. (We agree that organic, pesticide-free fruits
and vegetables are excellent for health. However, putting poison on
your salad just doesn't make sense to us.)

So who's right? Unfortunately, good data are scarce. The only book-
length study of pesticide hazards was published by the National Academy
of Sciences (NAS) in 1987. The NAS reported in 1987 that they could
find "very limited actual data"[8,pg.59] regarding pesticide residues
on food. David Pimental at Cornell University pointed out in 1993 that
"U.S. analytical methods now employed detect only about one-third of
the more than 600 pesticides in use."[9,pg.49] So estimates must be
substituted for real data. Fifty years into pesticide technology, this
lack of data is shocking and pathetic. (Ask yourself, who benefits from
the absence of such data?)

The NAS study restricted itself to pesticides in and on food. It
omitted pesticide exposures that occur as a result of drinking
pesticide-contaminated ground water,[8,pg.45] a phenomenon that is very
common in parts of the U.S.

Pesticides come in 3 flavors: herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides.

According to the NAS, about 480 million pounds of herbicides are used
annually in the U.S.; of these, 300 million pounds (62.5%) are agents
that "the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] presumes to be
oncogenic or for which positive oncogenicity data are currently under
review by the agency."[8,pg.46] Oncogenic means tumor-producing. The
NAS estimate omitted two large-volume herbicides, atrazine and 2,4-D,
because EPA received data indicating oncogenicity of these chemicals
after the NAS study was completed.[8,pg.47]

Quantities of oncogenic insecticides are not described in detail in the
NAS study. Insecticides are described in terms of acre treatments; one
acre-treatment is defined as one acre to which one pesticide has been
applied one time. NAS says that presumed oncogens make up between 35%
and 50% of all insecticidal acre-treatments.[8,pgs.47-48]

About 90% of all fungicides show positive results in oncogenicity
tests. These oncogenic fungicides represent from 70 million to 75
million of the 80 million pounds of all fungicides applied annually in
the U.S.[8,pg.48]

The NAS committee worked with a 1985 list of 53 pesticides that EPA
considered oncogenic.[8,pg.50] However, an estimate of oncogenic
potency was only available for 28 of the 53, or 53%.[8,pg.51] In other
words, NAS found that it could not estimate the risks for 47% --roughly
half --of the pesticides that EPA identified as oncogenic because
necessary data on oncogenic potency were not available. The NAS
therefore restricted its analysis to the 28 pesticides for which data
existed. NAS used EPA's data and EPA's risk assessment methods.

NAS says that, in doing risk assessments, EPA "tries to make necessary
assumptions in a way that minimizes the chance of underestimating
risks."[8,pg.50] "The result is that these [NAS] risk assessments
probably overstate true oncogenic risk," NAS said.[8,pg.50] Risk refers
to incidence of cancer cases, not death.[8,pg.65]

The NAS said there are 4 reasons why its risk estimates may overstate
the risk, and four reasons why its estimates may understate the risk.

Reasons why NAS estimates may overstate the risk:

** In extrapolating from high-dose tumor incidence data to low-dose
estimates, conservative assumptions have been made;

** NAS assumed that all acres of all crops are treated with the
pesticides which are registered for use on those crops;

** NAS assumed that residues are always present at the legally
allowable level, when in fact they are usually present at lower levels;

** NAS assumes that daily exposure occurs during a 70-year lifetime.

Reasons why NAS may have understated the risk:

** NAS lacked toxicological data for some active ingredients and for
most "inert" ingredients, degradation products, and metabolites. [So-
called "inerts" make up the bulk of most pesticides and are closely-
held secrets. Some "inerts" are toxic in their own right; see REHW
#469. Likewise, metabolites and degradation by-products can be more
poisonous than the parent compound; for example, DDE is more toxic than
its parent, DDT.]

** The models used for extrapolating from animal data to humans may
have been insufficiently conservative in some respects.

** Certain routes of exposure were omitted.

** Possible synergistic (multiplier) effects of pesticides and
metabolites) were omitted from consideration.[8,pgs.65-66]

NAS estimated[8,pg.68] that the total risk from the 28 pesticides was
5.85 cancers per thousand people per lifetime. Dividing this by 70
(years in a lifetime) and multiplying it by the number of groups of
1000 in the U.S. population (250,000 such groups) yields an annual
estimated pesticide-caused cancer incidence of 20,800 in the U.S. If
half of the new pesticide-caused cancers each year result in death,
this brings NAS's estimate of annual deaths from pesticides-in-food to
10,400 per year.[10] How does this compare to deaths by assault rifles?
And didn't we set out to discuss dioxin strategy? More next week.

--Peter Montague


[1] Helen Cordes, "Watch Your Mouth!," UTNE READER January, 1996, pgs.

[2] Paul Rauber, "Vegetable Hate Crimes," SIERRA MAGAZINE
November/December, 1995, pgs 20-21.

[3] PMA ISSUE UPDATES February 2, 1996; available as document #414 from
the Produce Marketing Association's (PMA) fax-back service; phone (302)
738-2981 in Newark, Delaware.

[4] Marion D. Chartoff and Michael C. Colby, "Agribusiness Leads Effort
to Silence Activists," SAFE FOOD NEWS Summer, 1994, pgs. 16-17.
Available from Food & Water, Inc., R.R. 1, Box 68 D, Walden, Vermont
05873; phone: (802) 563-3300. SAFE FOOD NEWS has been renamed the FOOD

[5] The histories of both DES and DDT are told well in Edward W.
Lawless, TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIAL SHOCK (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers
University Press, 1977).

[6] "Trade Groups Blasting Anti-Pesticide Ad," SUPERMARKET NEWS
December 25, 1995, pg. 26.

[7] Dave Swenson, "Ad stirs quick response," THE PACKER Dec. 25, 1995,
pg. 4A.

[8] Richard Wiles and others, REGULATING PESTICIDES IN FOOD; THE
DELANEY PARADOX (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1987).

[9] David Pimentel and Hugh Lehman, editors, THE PESTICIDE QUESTION;
ENVIRONMENT, ECONOMICS AND ETHICS (New York and London: Chapman & Hall,

[10] This is a reasonable estimate; each year about a million new cases
of cancer are reported in the U.S., and about 500,000 cancer deaths
occur. See Lynn A. Gloeckler Ries and others, CANCER STATISTICS REVIEW
1973-1988 [National Institutes of Health Publication No. 91-2789]
(Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute, 1991).

Descriptor terms: pesticides; advertising; produce; fruits; vegetables;
carcinogens; cancer estimates; national academy of sciences; produce
for better health foundation; food & water; banana laws; first
amendment; produce marketing association; united fresh fruit and
vegetable association; western growers association; david pimentel;
mortality statistics; food disparagement laws;