Environmentalist Mythology that Harms Kids

January 01, 1998  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Environment

What does the latest phase of the environmentalist campaign to wipe pesticides off the face of the earth have to do with two of the most famous movies of all time, Casablanca and Gone with the Wind? Think mythology.

Humphrey Bogart never said, "Play it again, Sam." He said, "Play it Sam; play it!" Nor was Clark Gable’s adieu to Miss O’Hara, "Frankly Scarlet, I don’t give a damn!" True, he didn’t give a damn, but it was "Frankly, my dear . . ." Most of us are sure the supposed lines were uttered. A tape rental would demonstrate otherwise.

Likewise, ever since the prestigious National Academy of Sciences [NAS] issued its 1993 report, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children, the media and environmentalist groups have claimed it says children need special protection from pesticide residues.

In fact the report — readily available in libraries or through mail order says no such thing. But this myth did not arise spontaneously. And its ultimate effects, far from being a matter of trivia, may be devastating.

Just days before the NAS report came out, two of the most extreme environmental groups — the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG)— issued their own "studies" claiming pesticides are a danger to children and declaring the NAS "is expected to confirm that children are uniquely vulnerable to pesticide residues in food, and provide the most complete evidence that they are inadequately protected from those chemicals."

It didn’t. But the media didn’t wait to find out. Why bother reading through a study when you’ve got advocacy groups supplying a one-sentence summary? Thus Nightline proclaimed: "Tonight, a new study sounds an alarm. Pesticides on fruits and vegetables may be giving our children cancer." Newsweek’s headline blared: "Better Watch Those Fresh Fruits." And so it went.

"EWG? NRDC? Both of them doth please me!"

The ploy worked spectacularly. Indeed, three days BEFORE the NAS report appeared, the EPA cited it in a statement saying, "The Clinton administration today announces its commitment to reducing the use of pesticides."

Yet after the report appeared, the agency’s own pesticide program adviser, Jim Jones, told me it "absolutely, absolutely" did not call for reduced pesticide usage.

But the snowball was rolling. Soon it hit Capitol Hill, where it swayed Congress to pass the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996, giving the EPA discretion to restrict or even effectively ban a pesticide if it decided that it might pose a special risk to children.

Now the very environmental groups that started the myth are using it to rush the EPA into banning many common pesticides. Thus a recently-released EWG paper blasts the agency for not moving fast enough to implement the FQPA its own myth helped create, urging a "Ban now; look at the scientific data later." policy. It also repeated the NAS study myth, saying it declared "the unborn and the very young need special protection from pesticides."

Further, EWG gave misleading data showing pesticide usage has gone way up recently. It didn’t say that this resulted from a single year’s increase (caused by unusual weather and increased planting), and that agricultural pesticide use has dropped sharply from 843 million pounds in 1979 to 771 pounds in 1995, the last year for which there are data.

Nor did it say that EPA pesticide standards have long included an extra safety factor for especially susceptible persons, which includes children, nor that the EPA standards are generally far stricter than those of the World Health Organization.

"Scientists aren’t supposed to use absolutes like ’safe,’" Washington State University environmental toxicologist Dr. Allan Felsot told me. "But the residue exposures children receive are SAFE."

Consider the EWG’s top target, organophosphate insecticides. Felsot notes that while studies showed juvenile rats are more vulnerable than adults, all the rats were stuffed with massive doses. In one type of test, the dose is purposely set high enough to kill half the animals. Naturally that leaves the other half with one paw in the grave. "Of course these rats are going to be screwed up," says Felsot. "But this tells us nothing about what happens at tiny levels."

Yet environmentalists will continue to play these same pseudo-science games today at a joint EPA-Agriculture Department meeting in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, already 80 percent of U.S. children and adolescents don’t meet the minimum fruit and vegetable intake recommended by the government. Take away the pesticides that protect our crops and watch prices go up, making consumption drop even further. But don’t bother telling that to the environmentalist myth-makers. Frankly, they don’t give a damn.