Pesticides, Politics, and Acceptable Death

           In 1900, cancer killed three people in America out of every hundred. Today, it's 33 out of every hundred and one of four Americans die from it. These figures come from Dr. Joseph Weissman, a professor of medicine at UCLA. Weissman reckons that a fair slice of this explosion in cancer mortality can be laid at the door of petro-chemicals, particularly those used by the food industry.

           On August 1, the same day Bill Clinton announced his decision to sign the welfare bill, Congress passed--with the White House's glowing approval--the Food Quality Protection Act. In the House, the vote was unanimous. In the Senate, only one voice was raised against its passage. In consequence, a few years down the road, Dr. Weissman or his co-researchers will have to recalibrate their numbers, for the worse. You wouldn't know it from the papers, from the radio, or from TV, but this Food Quality Protection Act signals a retreat as momentous as the one on welfare, and once again, children will be paying much of the price.

           The purpose of this bill, which was cosponsored by Rep. Thomas Bliley and Rep. Tom DeLay, respectively a mortician from Virginia and pest exterminator from Texas, is to overturn the Delaney Clause, in force since the 1950s and the only absolute prohibition against carcinogens in processed foods. This clause has been the target of the food industry since it became law. It was finally done in by the usual coalition: business lobbyists, the White House, PR firms, big green organizations, and the elite media.

           Immediately after the Congress passed the bill, Clinton took to the airwaves on his Saturday radio show to commend the Republican Congress for rejecting "extremism on both sides" and finding the "common ground." "I call this the Peace of Mind Act," Clinton went on, "because parents will know that the fruits, grains, and vegetables children eat are safe. Chemicals can go a long way in a small body."

           But by throwing out the Delaney Clause, the federal government simply abandons any effort to prevent cancer provoked by pesticides and instead goes into the cancer management business by way of "risk assessment." Corporate and governmental statisticians will broker the "acceptable" number of people permitted to contract cancer from pesticide residues, comforted in the knowledge that most of these people will be poor and black or Hispanic. To put it another way, the government regulators are now set to determine how many people may be sacrificed in order for the food and chemical industries to make more money with fewer liabilities.

           Amid all the talk about returning decision-making to the states, the new law explicitly prohibits states from adopting tougher safety standards than those required by the federal government. With the Delaney Clause dead on the floor of Congress, some 80 pesticides that were about to be outlawed as carcinogens will now remain in use. Call it the Dow-Monsanto bail-out bill, since these two companies make most of the chemical killers that were on the list to be banned.

           The present calculation by the National Academy of Sciences is that between 30,000 and 60,000 people die each year from exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. Those at highest risk are children. The Academy's study found that for some children, "exposures to just five pesticides found on eight foods could be sufficiently high enough to produce symptoms of acute organophosphate pesticide poisoning." Another recent report cautions that by an average child's first birthday, the infant has been exposed to more than eight carcinogenic pesticides in amounts that exceed the previous standards set for a lifetime of exposure.

           The new standards for "acceptable risk" are to be set by the EPA, operating on recommendations of the food industry lobbyists, based on research from chemical industry scientists. "The new law brazenly codifies how many people the food industry can kill with pesticides," said Patty Clary, director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics. "About as many a year as went down on Flight 800, per chemical." Clary adds that the Food Quality Protection Act doesn't even address the topic of synergy, the toxic multiplier effect that occurs when more than one pesticide is involved.

           Recent scientific research has shown that a cocktail mix of pesticides such as dieldrin, chlordane, and endosulfan is 1,600 times more toxic than the discrete chemicals administered separately. Dieldrin and chlordane are banned chemicals that persist in the environment at dramatic levels. Endosulfan remains in wide use. All are known to be endocrine disrupters and are linked to breast and uterine cancers, birth defects, and infertility.

           This chemical soup is what children will now go on eating everyday in products like raisins that are marketed directly at kids. "Chemicals go a long way in a small body," Clinton said. He could have been more specific. The new law now ensures that when children eat strawberries, they will also be ingesting the deadly chemical residue left by benamyl, captan, and methyl bromide. The average apple and peach has eight different pesticides embedded in it. Grapes have six and celery five. Children get as much as 35 percent of their likely lifetime dose of such toxins by the time they are five. Thus, something intrinsically bad is happening at the worst possible time, when DNA transcription is still going on.

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