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Fighting for a safer environment at home, in the community, and at work

"Negligible Risk" Is Still Much Too Great

Los Angeles Times, November 16, 1989, p. 87


Rather than allowing any exposure, the federal government should be moving to phase out the use of carcinogenic chemicals in food.

Back in 1958, Congress followed the urgings of Rep. James J. Delaney of New York and prohibited cancer-causing pesticides in processed food. But a failure of government to apply the law to hundreds of pesticides that were already on or coming on the market left the public unprotected.

Now the Bush Administration, in its pesticide proposal unveiled last month, has joined. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in calling for the repeat of the Delaney Clause in exchange for a misleading and ill-conceived negligible risk standard concerning pesticide residues in food.

The differences in the safety standards of these proposals are a matter of nuance- all give the highly politicized Environmental Protection Agency discretionary authority to allow pesticide residues at levels posing acceptable cancer risks, as determined by the highly questionable mathematical models and rubber numbers of risk assessment, without adequate protections for vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly.

The Administration's negligible risk proposal allows one or more additional cancers per 100,000 people for one pesticide on one food item, equivalent to at least 35 excess cancers annually in the U.S. population. The Waxman-Kennedy proposal claims to allow one additional cancer per 1 million.

Even though most fruits and vegetables are contaminated with residues of many carcinogenic pesticides, neither the Bush nor the Waxman-Kennedy proposal considers aggregate cancer risk from a total diet. Under the Administration's proposal, and based on EPA's own estimates, residues of 60 carcinogenic pesticides on 30 foods would result in about 64,000 excess- cancers a year, more than 10% of all current cancer deaths. Waxman-Kennedy might yield a somewhat lower risk because this proposal does require a partial look at aggregate risks from individual food commodities. However, both proposals ignore additional exposure to carcinogenic pesticides in water and air, other environmental and occupational carcinogens and the unpredictable synergistic interactions from these multiple exposures. The Proposal further ignores other toxic effects.

Worse, the Bush Administration proposal would also deny states the right to set higher standards of protection than the federal government. State authority in this area serves as an important check on the federal branch, and in most cases precipitates belated and reluctant federal action. Florida acting on ethylene dibromide in 1983 and Massachusetts acting on Alar in 1986 served to draw national attention to issues on which the EPA had been dragging its feet for decades. An environmental coalition in California, reacting to an unprotective federal government, is now promoting a state measure, the Environmental Protection Act of 1990, to phase out cancer-causing pesticides.

The Bush proposal represents a caving in to special interests that have long sought to strip states of their power to act where EPA has not. This is especially important in light of California's finding, under its Birth Defects Prevention Act, that EPA has reached wrong safety conclusions on as many as 58 of 99 pesticides reviewed.

In the end, the Administration proposal will reverse major trends in reducing the use of agricultural pesticides in general and carcinogenic pesticides in particular. The Administration plan gives more discretionary authority to federal agencies that have abused the public trust on safety issues. These agencies will then be free to fling open the regulatory floodgates as negligible risk levels of innumerable carcinogens in food, water, air and the workplace, and thus contribute still further to the cancer epidemic now striking one in three and killing one in four Americans.

Consumers. Have already seen through this political shortsightedness. Sales of apples fell off dramatically when consumers became aware of Alar residues. Some stores have committed to shifting out of the sale of foods treated with cancer-causing pesticides. Others have instituted their own monitoring system to detect residues.

It is the federal government that must now join in a major drive to rapidly phase out the use of carcinogenic and toxic chemicals in pest management and the production of the nation's food.


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