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A commonsense approach to pesticides.

"If you eat in this country, you eat pesticides," says Kenneth Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization that recently published a report entitled Pesticides in Children's Food.

"You quite likely eat them every day, and quite possibly in nearly every meal."

And how bad is that? Nobody really knows.

We do know that swallowing pesticides along with our food is far less dangerous than smoking, or eating too much fat, or drinking too much alcohol.

And we know that it's better to eat fruits and vegetables with pesticides than not to eat fruits and vegetables.

But we also know that some pesticides can cause cancer or damage the nervous systems or affect reproduction in animals. And that farmworkers who are around pesticides have higher rates of some cancers. And that pesticides can poison the soil, our drinking water, and the air.

Clearly, it's time to jump off the pesticide bandwagon. Through a series of questions and answers starting on page 5, we show you how.

Q: Is there any evidence that pesticides are a serious health hazard?

A: Plenty. In 1985, for example, about 1,000 people in California became ill after eating watermelon with illegally high levels of the pesticide aldicarb.

And when animals--both in the laboratory and in the wild--are exposed to certain pesticides, they develop cancer, birth defects, and nervous system and reproductive problems.

Also, studies of farmers suggest a link between pesticide use and Parkinson's disease. And the rates of many types of cancer--including leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and cancers of the brain, prostate, and stomach--are higher among farmers, who work closely with large amounts of pesticides.

But that shouldn't come as a surprise: the EPA says that about 70 pesticides now in use are "probable" or "possible" cancer-causers.

Q: But what about the average person, who eats low levels of pesticides?

A: Several studies suggest--not prove--that exposure to low levels for years can cause problems.

In one, researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the New York University Medical Center analyzed blood samples from 58 women with--and 171 similar women without --breast cancer. The women who had the highest levels of DDE in their blood were four times more likely to have breast cancer than the women with the lowest levels.[1] DDE comes from the pesticide DDT.

And the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimates that exposure to typical levels of some pesticides "could be high enough to produce symptoms of acute...pesticide poisoning" in some children.

Q: So children are in greater danger?

A: Without a doubt. To start with, they eat more food--and therefore more pesticides-than adults, relative to their size. And their bodies are still developing, which makes them more susceptible to many toxic substances.

According to the NAS, "exposures to pesticides early in life can lead to a greater risk of...cancer, neurodevelopmental impairment, and immune dysfunction." The government's "one-size-fits-all" approach to regulating pesticides in food, the NAS concluded, doesn't adequately protect infants and children.

Q: Are fruits and vegetables the biggest problem?

A: No. Grains and meats could contain as much pesticides. And you should avoid fatty fish that may have been caught in polluted areas. That includes salmon and trout from the Great Lakes, and bluefish, striped bass, and wild catfish. This is especially important if you are--or someday might want to be--pregnant.

Q: Is imported produce worse than domestic?

A: Yes. It's more likely to contain illegal residues. And that's a problem, since almost half of the fruits and vegetables we eat during the winter are imported. Half of those come from Mexico, which has no agency responsible for enforcing or monitoring limits on pesticide residues. And it shows.

Since 1979, when the FDA began a special program to monitor Mexican produce for pesticides, it has found about twice as many violations as in domestic produce.

Q: Doesn't the FDA prevent imported food with illegal residues from entering the country?

A: Not very often. The FDA routinely inspects only about one percent of all imported shipments. And it only looks for a fraction of the pesticides that could be present.

According to the General Accounting Office, food that contains illegal residues frequently isn't destroyed or returned to the exporting country, as required by law. Some importers apparently consider the penalties--and the risk of being caught--too small to bother about.

Q: Is there more we could do about those illegal residues?

A: For one thing, we could stop shipping 27 tons of pesticides, every hour of every day, to other countries. That's what customs records show.[2] And that's not even counting the pesticides that are transported by truck or train to Mexico or Canada.

Many of those pesticides wouldn't be legal here. Of the ones that could be identified, almost half were banned, suspended, unregistered, or for restricted use. They could be the pesticides that show up on your winter peaches, berries, or whatevers. The government ought to ban the export of those pesticides.

Q: Are pesticide residues in food inevitable?

A: No. More and more farmers are learning to farm with less pesticides. Some don't use them at all. There are 3,000 more certified organic farmers in the U.S. today than there were in 1990. Organic food sales have soared from $174 million in 1980 to $1.25 billion in 1991.

Q: Don't we need pesticides to produce food in quantity?

A: We could use far less. Studies by David Pimentel of Cornell University[3] and by the Natural Resources Defense Council[4] suggest that we could reduce our pesticide use by 50 percent or more, with little or no effect on crop yields or prices.

Following the lead of countries like Sweden and Indonesia, the FDA, the USDA, and the EPA have announced a joint "commitment" to reduce the use of pesticides and promote sustainable agriculture.

Q: If pesticides aren't so essential, why do farmers use so much of them?

A: Believe it or not, most farmers don't like to. "Nobody loves the land any more than a farmer, and nobody wants to protect it more than they do," explains Diane Hawks, who farms with her husband, Bill, in Hernando, Mississippi.

It's the government, in part, that discourages farmers from reducing pesticide use. For example, one of the easiest ways to cut back is to rotate your crops. But farmers who do can't qualify for government crop support programs. And some banks and insurance companies require farmers to use pesticides.

What's more, most farmers lack the experience and technical support to farm without--or with less--pesticides. Where do you think they get their information about pest control? From their pesticide dealer. It's not just a matter of reducing pesticides, it's learning to farm a whole different way.

"Imagine climbing into the cockpit of a jet and, with no flight experience, being asked to pilot it," says Steven Balling of Del Monte Foods. "Then sympathize with the farmer who is being asked to pilot a pest-management program without an owner's manual, and with the financial security and future of his farm and family resting on his success."

Q: How can we avoid pesticides?

A: Buy food that is "Certified Organic." There's not yet a national definition (see "Pesticide Politics"), but many states and independent groups have certification programs.

If you can't find certified organic, ask for food that's been grown with less pesticides. For example:

* Transitional Organic. The farmer is using organic methods, but the operation hasn't yet been certified.

* Integrated Pest Management (IPM). It usually involves non-chemical methods, although the "judicious use" of pesticides is permitted.

* No Detected Residues. Pesticides may be used, but when the food is tested by NutriClean, an independent company, no residues are found above 50 parts per billion.

* Locally Grown. Less likely to have been treated with pesticides after being harvested.

You'll be helping yourself...and the environment.

[1] Journal of the National Cancer Institute 85:648, 1993.

[2] Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Education, FASE Reports 11 (1):S1, 1993.

[3] CRC Handbook of Pest Management in Agriculture 1:679, 1991.

[4] Natural Resources Defense Council, Harvest of Hope (1991).
COPYRIGHT 1993 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles on cleaning fruits and vegetables, political action and organically grown foods
Author:Lefferts, Lisa Y.
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Dressing up.
Next Article:Yogurt: bacteria to basics.

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