Re: Frontline -Reply
Bob MacGregor (RDMACGREGOR@gov.pe.ca)
Tue, 09 Jun 1998 11:08:49 -0400
There is a sort of catch-22 in showing adverse effects of chemicals.
As they are made less acutely toxic, it becomes increasingly difficult to
identify the harmful effects. If such effects aren't detected in studies
leading up to approval, EPA lets it go. Unfortunately, this means that the
general populace becomes the test population for long-term toxicological
Also, as has been pointed out before, it is virtually impossible to
demonstrate that anything is safe -- only to detect adverse effects.
As for banning unsafe things. Well, that is really problematic. A couple
of decades ago, Consumer Reports tested peanut butter. They found
traces of aflatoxin in samples from every brand they tested. Aflatoxin is
a very powerful, natural carcinogen (from the mold Aspergillus flavus).
Nobody has banned peanut butter because of aflatoxin contamination
(or, even, because of widespread, potentially fatal allergic reactions for
that matter). Similarly, consider how long we have know that tobacco is
seriously deleterious to our health -- yet it hasn't been banned (yet). [I
readily admit a major difference exists between tobacco and pesticide
residues -- people chose to use tobacco, whereas the residues are just
there (or not) and invisible]
A cost-benefit approach to approval of synthetic (or, for that matter,
natural) substances makes a lot of sense until someone in your family
turns up on the cost side of the ledger -- this is true whether it is some
new agro-chemical, a medical drug, a food additive, or a purportedly
"organic" pest control agent. There is hardly anything in the world that
is 100% harmless to everyone; ultimately, some sort of tradeoff must be
made. If you think the harm will fall on your family, you will insist on
more stringent criteria for approval; if you stand to benefit (or, at least,
not to suffer harm) you will be less likely to insist on the most stringent
Government is ripped and torn between these conflicting viewpoints all
the time. The big companies can marshall the resources to lobby for
approval of the substances that give them their profits. The recent
fiasco with the organic rules shows, however, that the voice of the
public can carry weight, too -- the trick is to mobilize enough folks and
get the opinion to the right place. Just remember that, while the
Monsantos of the world may have a lot of $$$, USDA saw 200,000
voters saying they didn't like the proposed oganic rule. I heard
somewhere that legislators often assume that each individual letter they
get (barring the form-letter types), represents an opinion of 10 other
constituents who didn't get fired up enough to write.
The moral of the story is: don't give up; keep the pressure on; progress
may seem slow and there will be setbacks, but those politicians
want to get re-elected, so they will listen if we speak loudly enough. The
bureacracy, in the end, has to do what its political masters mandate.
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