Scare Tactics Pose Real Danger to Children’s Health

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Environment

Cynicism, thy name is Environmental Working Group. Just a couple of months ago, in an attempt to torpedo House amendments to the Clean Water Drinking Act, the EWG released a groundless report claiming the nation’s drinking water to be unsafe. Now the EWG is cranking the old Klaxon over levels of pesticides in children’s food. This time the group is trying to thwart the Regulatory Reform Bill, introduced by Republican Kansas Senator Bob Dole and Democratic Louisiana Senator J. Bennett Johnston, which would replace the outdated 1958 Delaney Clause regulating chemicals in processed foods with a standard reflecting state-of- the art science. Released in conjunction with a group called the National Campaign for Pesticide Policy Reform, the latest EWG report claims to have found traces of 16 pesticides, including substances known to cause cancer and nerve damage in laboratory animals, in eight varieties of baby foods purchased in Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. The EWG admitted that the levels were well within government-set limits for exposure to food. However, it said these limits are set for adults, not children. "Infants should not be exposed to pesticides in food until they have been proven safe," said Richard Wiles, author of the study and vice-present of EWG. "There are currently no pesticide safety standards that specifically protect infants and children from pesticides." To buttress its case, the EWG relies on a 1993 National Academy of Sciences report. It said, "growing infants are far more sensitive [to pesticides] than adults. That’s why a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences reported in 1993 that current pesticide standards are out of date. They allow too much pesticide in food, too little protection for infants." Dr. Phillip Landrigan never met a pesticide he didn’t hate, but even he wouldn’t endorse the environmentalist position.

Actually, the NAS said nothing of the sort. Though it was chaired by New York Mt. Sinai hospital’s Phil Landrigan, whose love for environmental regulations would make even Romeo and Juliet blush, all the NAS panel said was that because children may eat more of certain fruits and vegetables than adults and may be more sensitive to some pesticides, that perhaps standards should re-evaluated to build in an even greater safety standard for children than that already in place. Unfortunately, nobody knows that because when the report first appeared it was pre-empted by two other reports by the Natural Resources Defense Campaign — the friendly folks who started the Alar apple scare — and by, yup, the Environmental Working Group. In an act of sheer gall and dishonesty, both these groups put our their own scary, unfounded studies a week before the NAS one was to appear. Then they claimed the NAS would come to the same conclusion they did. The media willingly repeated the claim, and when they actual NAS report came out nobody was willing to admit they’d been snookered. Now, two years later, the EWG is still deceiving us over what the NAS said and still getting a free ride from the media. Yet even the NAS’s rather mealy-mouthed conclusion is difficult to justify based on the science. The highest pesticide residues the EWG found in its present report were in processed plums, which averaged 53 parts of pesticide per billion. Most of that was from the rodent carcinogen iprodione. To get an idea of how tiny that is, it’s the equivalent of a single plum in 1387 tons. It doesn’t take a hot green chile pepper to scare off predators. Fruits and vegetables in general are loaded with pesticides.

That is below the virtually safe dose that EPA calculates, which in itself is a theoretical maximum value. Further, the true risk may be zero. Thus, the most one could argue is that while current standards are already far, far below the danger level for adults, they may be "only" far below the level for children. Does that sound like a good reason to slam the panic button? Ironically, environmentalists who war against pesticides conveniently ignore the fact that the vast majority of such chemicals are produced naturally by plants themselves. In a debate with the EWG’s Wiles that will appear in the October* Vegetarian Times*, prize-winning Berkeley biologist Bruce Ames notes that "99.99% of the pesticides we eat are naturally present in plants to ward off insects and other predators. Half of these natural pesticides tested [during the usual high-dose testing] are rodent carcinogens. Reducing our exposure to the 0.01% of ingested pesticides that are synthetic is not likely to reduce cancer rates." What it would do is greatly increase the price of both fresh produce and products containing fruits and vegetables. Organic baby food, specifically, costs about twice as much as non-organic.That’s no big deal for an environmental group vice president, but to a lot of poorer parents it could prove a real burden. During this century, synthetic pesticides have made food dramatically cheaper and more available. According to the U.S. Public Health Service, much of the 30 years we’ve gained in life expectancy since 1900 results from better nutrition. But if the pesticide scaremongerers get their way, such gains could stop or even reverse. That’s the real threat posed to our children’s health.