What About "Putting People First"?

Los Angeles Times, September 8, 1993, p. B7

Clinton's proposals would greatly weaken regulations against chemical residues in our food.

When the National Academy of Sciences concluded in June that current levels of pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables may pose high risks of cancer and other disease to infants and children, the Clinton Administration promptly pledged to tighten regulatory policies. However, the Administration is expected to seek congressional approval for what amounts to weakened regulation of carcinogenic pesticides in the nation's food supplies.

The Administration's proposal

  • Would allow economic benefits for the agrichemical industry to outweigh health risks to consumers.
  • Fails to set goals and incentives for phasing out carcinogenic pesticides.
  • Gives the Environment Protection Agency discretion to set safety standards at any level of cancer risk.
  • Is based on safety standards that regulate each pesticide in isolation, rather than cumulative residues on a plateful of food.
  • Is based on food and Drug Administration monitoring that misses half of commonly used pesticides.
  • Ignores the safety standards for children recommended by the NAS.

The pressure to weaken pesticide regulations stems from agrichemical industry pressures and from a 1992 ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court at that time ordered the EPA to enforce the 1958 law known as "Delaney," which bans residues of those carcinogenic pesticides that concentrate in processed foods such as fruit juice or tomato paste. Rather than complying, the Administration is seeking legislative revocation of Delaney.

The validity of the law's basis that there is no scientific way to determine safe levels or tolerances for carcinogens, has been repeatedly examined and endorsed over the last three decades by a succession of independent expert committees. Nevertheless, the Clinton proposal recommends replacing Delaney, designed to prevent any avoidable exposures to dietary carcinogens, with standards that would allow residues posing "acceptable" or "negligible" risks of cancer, generally one in 1 million extra cancers.

Such risks are determined by what's known as "quantitative risk assessment," a pseudo-science based on questionable assumptions and mathematical models derived from animal carcinogenicity tests. While those tests reliably determine whether a chemical is carcinogenic, there is no way of predicting the relative sensitivities of humans and animals. In fact, recent studies suggest that humans may be many times more sensitive to particular carcinogens than are rodents.

The Administration has indicated that it will use a one-in-1-million cancer risk as its standard, but refuses to make it part of the law. Even using that standard, the Environmental Working Group, a Washington think tank, estimated that "by the average child's first birthday, the combined cancer risk from just eight pesticides on 20 foods exceeds the EPA's lifetime level of acceptable risk."

Federal policy should aim to prevent cancer by reducing avoidable risks. The Administration should phase out the use of carcinogenic pesticides within five to seven years, change government priorities to a favor sustainable no-pesticide (organic) or low-pesticide farming methods, and create health-based standards for pesticide residues geared especially to protection of fetuses, infants and children. Many farmers have already begun the transition to low-chemical and organic farming. In California, some of the largest grape growers are reducing pesticides use as organic techniques move into the mainstream.

Enactment of the Administration's ill-advised policies would provide a powerful stimulus to growing consumer demand for labeling of produce grown with carcinogenic pesticides. A March, 1993, poll by the consumer group Public Voice found that 79% of those polled "strongly favor tough laws requiring clear labeling of the chemicals and pesticides used to grow a food product." It would be a rash Administration, and an equally rash Congress, that permitted the use of carcinogenic pesticides but dismissed the public's right to know about carcinogens in their food.

There is growing concern about the losing war against cancer, which now strikes more than one in three and kills more than one in four Americans, up from an incidence of one in four and mortality of one in five in 1960. Over the last decade, 5 million have died in this cancer epidemic; by comparison, deaths in the AIDS catastrophe number fewer than 300,000. The escalating cancer rates largely reflect avoidable exposures to industrial carcinogens, of which pesticides are a major class, that have permeated our food, air, water and workplaces. The direct and indirect costs of cancer--early death, lost wages, costly treatment--are estimated to be at least $110 billion annually, or nearly 2% of GNP. These costs are a key factor in the current health-care crisis.

Pesticide regulation must enable people to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables without increasing their risk of cancer. To this end, the Administration should learn from Clinton's book, "Putting People First," and not be misled into putting pesticides first.