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#333 - What Are The Effects Of A Media Campaign To Convince Us That Poisons Are Safe, 14-Apr-1993

As chemical contamination of the natural environment continues to
spread,[1] and public concern continues to grow,[2] a major effort has
developed to try to convince the American people that industrial
poisons in our food and water are safe. Mainstream scientific
organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of
Science have been recruited and are on board. The NEW YORK TIMES is on
board. (See RHWN #330, #331, #332.) In an editorial February 26, 1993,
SCIENCE magazine said, "Synthetic pesticides in marketed foods
constitute no appreciable threat to human health." (They did not define
"appreciable.") SCIENCE went on to say that strict enforcement of the
Delaney clause (see RHWN #324, #326), to force removal of 70 suspected
or known carcinogens from the American food supply, would have
"negligible" benefits.[3] Recently the NEW YORK TIMES, editorialized
(in its news columns) that many unnamed "experts" are asking whether
the nation is "wasting billions of dollars regulating substances that
might pose little risk." And: "Many experts... question the wisdom of
spending billions of dollars to protect people from traces of toxic

Such media campaigns do have an effect. People are worried about
intimate contact with industrial poisons for obvious reasons (common
sense says you should keep them out of your food, if you can). Many
people therefore find it reassuring to have established and usually-
reliable sources of information telling them all is well, don't worry.
It is evident that people are hungry for reassurance, even if it is not
substantiated by any facts. Dozens of newspapers have reprinted the
TIMES'S recent unsupported claims that low levels of chemicals harm no
one. (One reader called from California to tell us that the TIMES'S
series was handed out at a Regional Water Control Board meeting about
leaking underground tanks. "The government is now using the NEW YORK
TIMES to try to convince us we're overreacting to all instances of
chemical contamination," said Anna Marie Stenberg.)

Propaganda campaigns like this one serve to reassure people that
industrial poisons are our friends, that it's OK to let poisons into
our homes and have intimate contact with them. Such campaigns clearly
work. Unsuspecting Americans brought 189 million pounds of pesticides
into their homes in 1988, and spread them into and onto their closets,
cabinets, floors and pets, then eventually into and onto their rugs,
carpets, furniture, linens, towels, air, food, and children.

Until very recently, surprisingly little has been known about actual
patterns of use of pesticides in homes. A pioneering 1992 study of 238
Missouri families revealed eye-opening new information about the way
people use pesticides.[4] Of the 238 families studied, 98 percent used
pesticides in home or garden at least once a year and 64 percent (two-
thirds) used pesticides more than five times a year. Eighty percent of
families used pesticides inside their homes at least once a year.
Fifty-seven percent of families used herbicides to control weeds. Half
of all families used insecticides to control fleas and ticks on pets.

Flea collars were the most popular single pesticidal product (half the
families used them). Carbaryl and Sevin were also popular, with 28.2
percent of families using them. Diazinon was another favorite with 8.4
percent using it. No-pest strips (dichlorvos) and Kwell shampoo
(lindane) were used by 10 percent.

The study examined pesticide use in relation to the age of children in
the home. (The families were selected partly because they had children
under 10 years old, so these families are not representative of the
general public.)

During pregnancy, 46.6 percent of families used pesticides at least
once, and 34.0 percent used them more than 5 times. Use of pesticides
by the mother herself during pregnancy was more limited: 28.9 percent
of pregnant women used pesticides at least once and 12.3 percent used
pesticides more than 5 times. These numbers represent a substantial
decrease of pesticide use during pregnancy, compared to other times;
this probably reflects awareness that humans are particularly sensitive
to toxins before birth.

When the home had a baby aged 6 months or less, pesticide use dropped
somewhat more, compared to the period of pregnancy. Only 10.2 percent
of families used pesticides on the garden when the baby was less than 6
months old (as opposed to 18.1 percent who put pesticides on the garden
while the mother was pregnant). Likewise, yard use of herbicides
dropped from 28.2 percent of families during pregnancy to 23.7 percent
of families after the baby arrived. Authors of the study believe this
reflects parental awareness that infants are especially sensitive to

Spray cans and spray liquids are the most popular forms of pesticides.
After the child reaches 7 months of age (or older), 50 percent of
families apply pesticides by this method. Dusts, "bombs," and no-pest
strips were used by 5 percent to 15 percent of families.

Use of flea collars remained constant regardless of pregnancy or age of
the child. "This was in contrast to all other product types that showed
substantially less use during pregnancy and birth to six months of
age," the study's authors said. Evidently most people do suspect the
possibility of pesticidal effects on their young children but they do
not seem to recognize that flea collars cover their pets with low
levels of poison.

* * *

A 1993 study of brain cancer in Missouri children shows statistically
significant associations between childhood brain cancer and several
types of pesticide use in the home, including no-pest strips, flea and
tick collars on pets, and chemicals for controlling nuisance pests
(roaches, ants, spiders, mosquitoes), termites, lice, garden and
orchard pests, yard weeds and pet pests (ticks and fleas).[5]

The case-control study examined 45 Missouri children with brain cancer,
plus two control groups (85 healthy friends of the cancer-stricken
children, and 108 children with other types of cancers besides brain

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in children under 14 and
brain tumors are the second most frequent type of cancer, accounting
for approximately 20 percent of all cancers in children. The survival
rate of children with brain cancer has not improved in recent years (35
percent survive five years or longer).[6]

According to data compiled by the National Cancer Institute, during the
past 15 years there has been a "dramatic rise" in brain cancers among
two age-groups in the U.S.: old people and children. Brain cancer in
children aged 0-4 is rising at a steady 2.6 percent each year (thus
doubling in incidence every 27 years, or doubling each generation).[7]
Between 1973 and 1988, brain cancer in children under 14 increased 47%
(from 2.3 per 100,000 to 3.4 per 100,000).[8]

Families of the children with brain cancer seemed like ordinary people.
Fifteen percent had only a high school education; another 40 percent
had high school plus additional training; 24 percent had graduated from
college. Thirty-eight percent had a family income between $20,001 and
$30,000; 16 percent had family incomes between $30,001 and $40,000; 16
percent had family incomes above $40,001.

In making the comparisons between the brain cancer cases and the
controls, researchers took into account the child's exposure to
environmental tobacco smoke, family income, family members working in
construction trades (among adults, brain cancer is associated with
exposure to many industrial chemicals, especially paint--see RHWN
#266), father's education and mother's education, among other things.

What chiefly distinguishes the "case" families from the "control"
families is that the "case" families used chemical pesticides in their
homes more often than did families whose children have not developed
brain tumors.

In all, the study found 15 separate statistically significant
associations between one type or another of pesticide use and childhood
brain cancer. Types of pesticide use are such things as "use of no-pest
strips for nuisance pests" and "Diazinon used in the garden or

This study has several limitations. The number of cases is small; many
associations were tested, so a few of the 15 positive associations may
be due to random chance. The study may suffer from "recall bias"
because the data were supplied by mothers whose recall may have been
been biased by their emotional reaction to their child's experience.

The authors say, "Although our findings are not conclusive, they are
suggestive of an association between childhood brain cancer and several
pesticide use situations, product types, and specific products. The
results of this study highlight the need for expanded research on the
health effects of pesticides." And, it seems to us, the need for some
common-sense steps like PREVENTION.

--Peter Montague


[1] Curtis C. Travis and Sheri T. Hester, "Global Chemical Pollution,"
ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY Vol. 25, No. 5 (May, 1991), pgs.

[2] Roberto Suro, "Pollution-Weary Minorities Try Civil Rights Tack,"
NEW YORK TIMES January 11, 1993, pgs. 1, B7.

[3] Philip H. Abelson, "Pesticides and Food," SCIENCE Vol. 259
(February 26, 1993), pg. 1235.

[4] James R. Davis and others, "Family Pesticide Use in the Home,
TOXICOLOGY Vol. 22 (1992), pgs. 260-266.

[5] James R. Davis and others, "Family Pesticide Use and Childhood
Vol. 24 (1993), pgs. 87-92.

[6] Ellen Gold and others, "Risk Factors for Brain Tumors in Children,"
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 109 (1979), pgs. 309-319.

[7] Nigel H. Greig, Lynn G. Ries, Rosemary Rancik, and Stanley I.
Rapoport. "Increasing Annual Incidence of Primary Malignant Tumors in
(October 17, 1990), pgs. 1621-1624.

[8] 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, pg. II.[32].

Descriptor terms: pesticides; journalism; propaganda; new york times;
science magazine; aaas; mo; pesticide use data; insecticides;
herbicides; pets; flea collars; carbaryl; diazinon; dichlorvos; kwell
shampoo; lindane; brain cancer; childhood cancer; mortality statistics;
morbidity statistics; no pest strips;