. RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #482 .
. ---February 22, 1996--- .
. HEADLINES: .
. THE PESTICIDE FAILURE .
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THE PESTICIDE FAILURE
According to the FBI, rifle fire was responsible for 723
homicides in the U.S. in 1994. 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. In an
effort to save these 250 lives, Congress in August, 1994, banned
the sale of assault rifles.
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
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
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.).
The source of 95% of the dioxin in our food is incinerators,
according to EPA officials. 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
 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.
 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),
 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.
 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.
 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;
Environmental Research Foundation provides this electronic
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--Peter Montague, Editor
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