Pesticide Pamphlet Controversy
Air Date: Week of January 22, 1999
Under Congressional mandate, the EPA was supposed to produce a straight-talking pamphlet telling consumers about the hazards of pesticides on fruits and vegetables. But health activists aren’t happy with the final product, saying the agency caved in to pressure from the agribusiness lobby.
CURWOOD: It's not just by breathing dirty air that you take toxic chemicals into your body. Government researchers report that many fruits and vegetables contain pesticide residues, including more than half of all apples. The US Environmental Protection Agency says the amounts are too small to pose a risk, but many health experts disagree. On a recent visit to a Nature's Heartland grocery story in suburban Boston, we found some customers who are uneasy about what's in their food, and they are hoping that good kitchen practices will help keep them safe.
(Milling and beeping sounds inside a supermarket)
WOMAN: I wash all my produce before I eat it, so I hope that it's -- what's on there comes off in water.
WOMAN 2: I basically just try to wash everything well, because I don't really have a good sense of what I'm getting when I, you know, buy something at the store. Whether or not it's got stuff on it or not.
WOMAN 3: Since I wash everything off, I guess I'm not too worried about getting sick. We've never had any problems. Yet. (Laughs) Yet.
(Voice on market PA; other ambient sounds)
CURWOOD: Congress told the Environmental Protection Agency in 1996 to help consumers with a straight-talking brochure about pesticides: their health effects and how to reduce exposure. The job is now done and soon the Agency will ship 4 million copies of the colorful pamphlet to thousands of stores coast to coast.
KENNEY: This is the first time that the Environmental Protection Agency has been required to communicate with consumers about risk in the food supply from pesticides.
CURWOOD: Janine Kenney is an analyst for the Consumers Union, the group that publishes Consumer Reports Magazine.
KENNEY: And in our view, this Administration blew it.
CURWOOD: Ms. Kenney says a version of the pamphlet, which the Agency circulated for comment a year ago, has been revised and condensed so much that much of the information it had has been wrung out of it. Simple, direct language has been watered down. The section called, quote, "Tips to Reduce Pesticides on Food," became, quote, "Healthy, Sensible Food Practices."
KENNEY: The original brochure that EPA proposed told consumers that pesticides are hazardous, and that they can produce effects such as cancer, immune system problems, and so forth.
CURWOOD: Here's the initial version:
BADER: "Often, many of the same substances that make pesticides useful in protecting food from pests could make them harmful to people. Some pesticides have been shown to cause health problems, such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other toxic effects in laboratory animals. In addition, infants and children may be more vulnerable to pesticides because their bodies are not fully mature.
CURWOOD: Here's the same part of the final brochure:
BADER: Pesticides are used to protect food from pests, such as insects, rodents, weeds, mold, and bacteria. While pesticides have important uses, studies show that some pesticides cause health problems at certain levels of exposure.
KENNEY: That tells consumers far less about what these substances are that are on their food. We urged EPA to very clearly and very plainly state to consumers that pesticides are poisons.
CURWOOD: And then there's the treatment of organic food. Washing vegetables removes some pesticides, but others just don't rub off. And even peeling won't help when chemicals are absorbed into the flesh of a fruit or vegetable. People who want to reduce their exposure to pesticides must eat products grown with fewer or no such chemicals. The draft brochure recommended they consider buying organic.
(Ambient supermarket sounds)
CURWOOD: That's what many customers at this store are doing.
MAN 2: I'm just getting some apples and some oranges, and usually organic if I can find it.
WOMAN 4: I basically shop for anything that's organic. I had cancer a couple of years ago and I think that it's environmentally-caused. So now I buy whatever I can organic.
(Supermarket sounds continue)
CURWOOD: But Janine Kenney of the Consumers Union believes the final version of the EPA brochure tends to discourage consumers from considering the benefits of buying organic.
KENNEY: Now, unfortunately, the brochure merely informs consumers that there is food that is grown using organic or integrated pest management practices, but suggests that because there are no national standards the buyer should beware. Well, it's true that national standards are not yet complete, and we certainly hope they will be complete at some point in the near future. There are state standards, and there are certainly certified organic food available to consumers.
CURWOOD: Janine Kenney accuses the EPA of caving to pressure from the agribusiness lobby: a charge both the Agency and industry deny. Chris Closs of the American Crop Protection Association, which represents pesticide makers, says the draft was simply too wordy. He says the final version is better for busy shoppers.
CLOSS: As you go through the check-out line, there's a lot of information, and people go for the headline information. So if the brochure is accurate, it talks about pesticides, why they're used, it talks about the residues and what people can do to further reduce residues if they choose, that's terrific.
CURWOOD: The battles over the brochure and the release of information about neighborhoods that are most affected by toxic air may be taken by some as signs that the EPA is going too slow. But others say the Agency is moving, and that ultimately these moves add up. In the meantime, the EPA is currently developing new standards that consider the cumulative exposures of pesticides from food, air, and water. The first batch of new rules, covering about half of pesticides in use. Is due out this summer. And time will tell if the critics of this move will be industry representatives, or public health advocates.
Our story on the EPA's pesticide pamphlet was produced by Daniel Grossman. Ken Bader was the voice of the EPA brochure.
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