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Pesticides, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Acceptable Death

In 1900, cancer killed three people in America out of every hundred. Today, it’s 33 out of every 100–more than one-in-four Americans die from cancer. These figures come from Dr. Joseph Weissman, a professor of medicine at UCLA. Weissman reckons that a fair slice of this explosion in cancer mortality can be laid at the door of petro-chemicals, particularly those used by the food industry.

On August 1, 1996, the same day Bill Clinton announced his decision to sign the welfare bill, Congress passed–with the White House’s glowing approval–the Food Quality Protection Act. In the House, the vote was unanimous. In the Senate, only one voice was raised against its passage. In consequence, a decades years down the road, Dr. Weissman or his co-researchers will have to recalibrate their numbers, for the worse. You wouldn’t know it from the papers, from the radio, or from TV, but this Food Quality Protection Act signals a retreat as momentous as the one on welfare, and once again, children will be paying much of the price.

The purpose of this bill, which was cosponsored by Rep. Thomas Bliley and Rep. Tom DeLay, respectively a mortician from Virginia and pest exterminator from Texas, was to overturn the Delaney Clause, in force since the 1950s and the only absolute prohibition against carcinogens in processed foods. This clause has been the target of the food industry since it became law. It was finally done in by the usual coalition: business lobbyists, the White House, PR firms, big green organizations, and the elite media.

Immediately after the Congress passed the bill, Clinton took to the airwaves on his Saturday radio show to commend the Republican Congress for rejecting “extremism on both sides” and finding the “common ground.” “I call this the Peace of Mind Act,” Clinton went on, “because parents will know that the fruits, grains, and vegetables children eat are safe. Chemicals can go a long way in a small body.”

But by throwing out the Delaney Clause, the federal government simply abandoned any effort to prevent cancer provoked by pesticides and instead goes into the cancer management business by way of “risk assessment.” Corporate and governmental statisticians will broker the “acceptable” number of people permitted to contract cancer from pesticide residues, comforted in the knowledge that most of these people will be poor and black or Hispanic. To put it another way, the government regulators are now set to determine how many people may be sacrificed in order for the food and chemical industries to make more money with fewer liabilities.

Amid all the talk about returning decision-making to the states, the new law explicitly prohibits states from adopting tougher safety standards than those required by the federal government. With the Delaney Clause dead on the floor of Congress, some 80 pesticides that were about to be outlawed as carcinogens will now remain in use. Call it the Dow-Monsanto bail-out bill, since these two companies make most of the chemical killers that were on the list to be banned.

The present calculation by the National Academy of Sciences is that between 30,000 and 60,000 people die each year from exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. Those at highest risk are children. The Academy’s study found that for some children, “exposures to just five pesticides found on eight foods could be sufficiently high enough to produce symptoms of acute organophosphate pesticide poisoning.” Another recent report cautions that by an average child’s first birthday, the infant has been exposed to more than eight carcinogenic pesticides in amounts that exceed the previous standards set for a lifetime of exposure.

The new standards for “acceptable risk” are set by the EPA, operating on recommendations of the food industry lobbyists, based on research from chemical industry scientists. “The new law brazenly codifies how many people the food industry can kill with pesticides,” said Patty Clary, director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics. “About as many a year as went down on Flight 800, per chemical.” Clary adds that the Food Quality Protection Act doesn’t even address the topic of synergy, the toxic multiplier effect that occurs when more than one pesticide is involved.

Scientific research has shown that a cocktail mix of pesticides such as dieldrin, chlordane, and endosulfan is 1,600 times more toxic than the discrete chemicals administered separately. Dieldrin and chlordane are banned chemicals that persist in the environment at dramatic levels. Endosulfan remains in wide use. All are known to be endocrine disrupters and are linked to breast and uterine cancers, birth defects, and infertility.

This chemical soup is what children will now go on eating everyday in products like raisins that are marketed directly at kids. “Chemicals go a long way in a small body,” Clinton said. He could have been more specific. The new law now ensures that when children eat strawberries, they will also be ingesting the deadly chemical residue left by benamyl, captan, and methyl bromide. The average apple and peach has eight different pesticides embedded in it. Grapes have six and celery five. Children get as much as 35 percent of their likely lifetime dose of such toxins by the time they are five. Thus, something intrinsically bad is happening at the worst possible time, when DNA transcription is still going on.

With the new pesticide law giving agribusiness the green light–within the flexible parameters of risk assessment–there’s now scant incentive to transfer to other methods of ensuring high productivity in fields and orchards. But pesticides become less effective the more they are used. American farmers sprayed 33 percent more pesticides per acre in 1990 than they did in 1945. Over the same 45-year period, crop losses from pests increased from 31 to 37 percent. The response has been ever-greater dosings with pesticides. Addiction to chemical-intensive agriculture has become so acute that bio-engineers at the Monsanto Corporation have concocted “Round-Up Ready” soybeans. It is a deadly circle of poisons.

The risks from chemical-intensive agriculture come not only in the food, but also in the application of the pesticides, mostly in the form of aerial spraying. The federal Office of Technology Assessment reckons that more than 40 percent of the pesticides dumped by planes drifts off the target area, ending up in streams, schoolyards, and neighborhoods. Fluorescent tracers have shown that it takes only a moderate breeze to carry poisons such as 2,4-D and paraquat 20 to 50 miles. One study found poisons such as toxaphene, furan, and dioxin in the mud on the bottom of Lake Siskiwit, on Isle Royale–a wilderness island in the middle of Lake Superior. The pesticides had been wind-carried there over more than 200 miles.

Workers are always the first to pay the price. In central Washington last in 1995, 55 workers in an apple orchard became seriously ill after the wind shifted and they became exposed to the pesticide carbaryl. The EPA and the chemical industry claim that the regulations for the use of such pesticides will prevent any adverse health consequences. In their idyllic scheme, harvesting spraying takes place in perfect windless weather, with workers decked out in the latest protective gear and with detailed warning labels emblazoned on the poison brews. Real life in the fields means planes dumping clouds of pesticide in the wrong place at the wrong time, no protective clothing, poisons mixed with bare hands, workers uninformed about the dangers of the chemicals they are told to handle. The instructions for the use of pesticides are usually printed only in English, while most field workers are Spanish-speaking.

This Food Quality Protection Act is the consummation of a campaign by the food and chemical industries that has stretched over decades, ever since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted the public to chemical poisoning back in the 1950s. The Delaney Clause found its defenders in the National Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, Food & Water, Environmental Research Foundation, Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet, Cancer Prevention Coalition, and dozens of grassroots groups across the country such as Californians for Alternatives to Toxics.

the end, they were no match for the forces arrayed against them. As Clinton signd the fatal bill into law, with a youngster (one-in-four chances of croaking from cancer) at his elbow, Katie McGinty, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, hailed the act as the dawning of a new age of environmentalism. “I truly believe that the president will go down in history for having put in place a new generation of environmentalism, based on cooperation, not confrontation; defining and securing the common ground, defining the common interest, not the special interest.” McGinty should know all about special interests. At an earlier stage of her career, before she began ministering to Al Gore, McGinty was a lobbyist for the American Chemical Association.

But why wasn’t there a fight from the big green groups inside the Beltway over Delaney? Kurt Davies, of the DC-based Environmental Working Group, which backed the awful bill, says it was about political realism. “An idealist would interpret the loss of Delaney as a retreat from environmental protection,” Davies said. “But realistically, Delaney was going and keeping it just wasn’t a tenable battle. We just didn’t have the voice. We weren’t getting the thousands of letters needed to the Hill. Without that, it was just bending to the enemy.”

Of course, the reason those letters weren’t coming in to congressional offices was that the big green organizations had long since decided to give in on Delaney, trade it off in the interests of “realism.” Organizations such as the unabashedly pro-corporate Environmental Defense Fund even attacked Delaney as an inefficient barrier to flexible environmental regulation. Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation actually joined with lobbyists from Dow and Monsanto in testimony supporting the bill as a “sensible solution that goes a long way toward protecting the health of consumers.”

Michael Colby, at the Vermont-based Food & Water group, pithily called this surrender “a classic case of activist malpractice. These organizations back legislation that gives corporations the right to pollute at the expense of the public health, while promoting the law as an improvement. Meanwhile, citizens are left to face the onslaught of more cancer risks, states are held hostage to weaker federal health standards, and the chemical companies and big environmental groups are laughing all the way to the bank.”

This piece is adapted from a chapter in Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature.

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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