The Body Burden

Chemical and biological weapons disguised as beneficial pesticides and herbicides are poisoning Americans. Exposure is at levels “well above officially permitted thresholds established by government health and environmental agencies,” according to “Chemical Trespass,” a study released May 11 by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA).

And even though the long-term health effects of exposure are unknown, this hazardous industrial arsenal – estimated between 70,000 and 85,000 chemicals – grows by 2,000 new compounds each year.

PANNA based its report on an analysis of data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its January 2003 “Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.” The “body burden” – the pesticides humans carry – is most pronounced in children, Mexican-Americans and adult women, including those of child-bearing age who unwittingly and unwillingly pass on a toxic legacy to their offspring in the womb.

For its report, CDC tested 34 pesticides and found 23 with levels significant enough to allow for statistical analysis. Those 23 evaluated by PANNA include insecticides containing chlorpyrifos, organophosphates, lindane and p,p-DDE – a breakdown product of DDT.

“Many of the pesticides we carry in our bodies can cause cancer, disrupt our hormone systems, decrease fertility, cause birth defects or weaken our immune systems,” the report states. Because the public carries the burden of proving harm, manufacturers are able to hide behind the façade of regulatory compliance. Chemical industries wield influence in the regulatory process through generous campaign contributions and revolving-door employment practices that move industry insiders into key government positions with industry oversight.

“Chemical Trespass” chastises by name many pesticide manufacturers for the problem of body burden and calls on the government to sharply regulate the industry and completely ban some of the most troublesome pesticides, such as lindane and chlorpyrifos. “We have to highlight the specific actions of particular companies,” says Skip Spitzer, a PANNA staffer who helped produce the report. “Social change requires naming names and risking retribution from the powerful corporations at the root of environmental and social harms.”

Increasing corporate accountability is one of the goals of the report. “Corporate responsibility is not just a legal question but also a critical social issue,” Spitzer says. “It’s time for a new approach to what corporations can and cannot do, one that puts the right to meaningful public participation in determining pros and cons above the right to a legal profit.”

To aid in the process of holding corporations accountable, PANNA has created the Pesticide Trespass Index (PTI). According to Spitzer, it’s an example of a data-based measure of responsibility for chemical trespass. “It can’t tell you whose pesticides are in whose bodies, but it can give a strong indication of the degree to which specific chemical companies are responsible for poisoning us.”

PANNA is one of five Regional Pesticide Action Network Centers around the world that link local and international consumer, health, environment and agriculture groups together in a global citizens action network highlighting the dangers of widespread indiscriminate pesticide use. Working with more than 30 partner organizations, “Chemical Trespass” was issued in 23 locations in 15 states as well as in two Canadian cities.

In Indiana, the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) partnered with PANNA to release the report. Dr. Indra Frank, a medical doctor and HEC board member, announced the report’s findings during a poorly attended press conference at the Indiana Public Health Association’s (IPHA) Spring Meeting in West Lafayette, home of the state’s land grant college and agribusiness favorite, Purdue University.

“It should be of concern for everyone that children are susceptible,” says Dr. Frank, the mother of two elementary school children. “I really am concerned that if our society continues in the mode we’re currently in we’re going to see increasing health effects – we’re hurting ourselves.”

Frank was joined at the press conference by Rae Schnapp, HEC’s Wabash Riverkeeper. Schnapp earned her Ph.D. from Purdue’s agriculture school and has harsh criticism for her former colleagues. “The scientific community is really sort of arrogant in acting as if they fully understand the implications of using these compounds when they have only been around a few short years,” she says. “Who knows what the long-term effects are?”

This question is at the heart of “Chemical Trespass,” and informs one of the report’s most important recommendations: “Initiate an aggressive transition to a precautionary approach to pest management and pesticide regulation.”

PANNA’s Spitzer elaborates: “A precautionary approach to pesticide regulation, and regulation in general, is important because it places the burden of proof of safety on industry and involves the general public when trade-offs must be assessed.” Instead of the public having to prove health risks, the manufacturers must first demonstrate that a given product does not harm human health before releasing it into the marketplace.

As things currently stand, Spitzer says, the burden of proof is on the public to get harmful pesticides off the market. “It’s a perversion of science,” he says. “Unless you can scientifically establish a specific cause and effect relationship between a pesticide and harm, fighting industry science all the way, the harm typically remains. Pesticides become innocent until proven guilty.”

“No one ever asked us whether we wanted pesticides in our bodies,” Spitzer and his colleagues write in the report. “They are there without our consent.”

Schnapp agrees. “There are still a lot of unknowns about these chemicals that we’re spreading all over the landscape.”

Those unknowns were especially troubling to her while breastfeeding her daughter. “Several people congratulated me that I was breastfeeding. One person – a scientist – even said that breastfeeding would reduce my risk of breast cancer,” she says. But Schnapp wondered if she was also passing along an increased risk of other cancers to her child. “That’s scary to think,” she says. “What if I made her more at-risk by breastfeeding?”

Download “Chemical Trespass” at

THOMAS P. HEALY is a journalist in Indianapolis. He can be reached at: