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Scare tactics on pesticide

By Dennis Avery
Copyright 1999 Journal of Commerce
March 17, 1999


Scaring people about pesticides means scaring them away from eating fruits and vegetables. That presents an ethical dilemma, because health experts know that eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day can cut your cancer risk in half. That's according to a review by experts at the National Institutes of Health and the University of California at Berkeley.

That's why it was tragic to see a once-proud American magazine, Consumer Reports, carry a scare story about pesticides on fruits and vegetables in its March issue.

Consumer Reports claimed to have "analyzed pesticides levels in 27,000 samples of fruits and vegetables" and found many - apples, grapes, green beans, peaches, pears, spinach and winter squash - had "toxicity scores" so high that parents should consider not serving them to their kids.

What the magazine actually did was take the results of U.S. Department of Agriculture sampling - which found no dangerous residues - and have two known fearmongers twist the data into a scare story.

One of them, Edward Groth III of Consumers Union, the nonprofit that publishes Consumer Reports, was part of the most famous environmental media hoax of modern times, the Alar scare.

In February 1989, the CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes" called Alar, a growth regulator for apples, "the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply." Some mothers were so frightened they dumped apple juice down the drain and some schools stopped serving apples. In May 1989, Consumer Reports published a cover story on Alar titled "Bad Apples."

The Alar scare was later repudiated by organizations no less prestigious than the U.S. National Research Council and the World Health Organization.

Mr. Groth and co-author Charles Benbrook, formerly with the National Academy of Sciences' Board on Agriculture, base their latest tale on an Agricultural Department report on tests of 27,000 fruit and vegetable samples for pesticide residues. The department found none above the legal limits, which are based on exhaustive safety testing involving laboratory animals.

Messrs. Benbrook and Groth, however, constructed their own toxicity index, to create the illusion of consumer risk. They multiplied some residues as much as 150,000 times.

One of their biggest multipliers was for "endocrine disruption." But why? No one has ever demonstrated any health risk from endocrine disruption - from pesticides or anything else.

Some activists claim pesticides disrupt the functioning of the body's endocrine system, which controls hormone secretion. However, there are vastly more "endocrine disrupters" in fruits and vegetables themselves - and even Consumer Reports agrees those are mostly good for you.

For all the voodoo numbers in the toxicity index, the most galling tactic in the Consumer Reports "study" is its deliberate misuse of government reference levels.

These are the government's established safety limits for pesticide residues. The "acute" reference level of pesticide exposure is one that might cause immediate illness, such as nausea.

For safety's sake, the government sets the acute reference level at 1 percent of the toxic level.

The "chronic" level for pesticide exposure is one that might cause chronic illness if you were exposed to it each and every day for 70 years. Here the safety factor is even larger; the government sets the chronic level at 0.1 percent of the level that causes any health problems in experiments on lab rats.

Consumer Reports used a few violations of this much lower "chronic" level to imply that anything over these low levels represents an immediate, acute health threat to children.

It's as if the government had set an acceptable "chronic" daily level of two aspirin a day to prevent heart disease, but warned that an "acute dose" of 500 aspirin all at once could cause toxic shock. The Consumer Reports article basically tries to scare parents about three aspirin, taken once, for a headache.

Only pesticide levels above the acute reference level would pose an immediate health threat to children. Not one of the 27,000 food samples tested was even remotely close to those levels.

Moreover, only a fraction of the produce tested was above the much lower chronic reference level.

Consumer Reports pointedly failed to note the major report by the U.S. National Research Council in 1996, which found no appreciable risk from pesticide residues.

Even more disturbing, major TV networks and newspapers accepted Consumer Reports as a valid source. For two days American parents were bombarded with fiercely worded claims that popular fruits and vegetables were potentially deadly to their children.

If there were any doubt the Consumer Reports article was the kickoff for a campaign to eliminate the pesticides that protect our fruits and vegetables, the agenda was made clear Feb. 23.

The Environmental Working Group took out a full-page ad in that day's New York Times to claim, "A decade after Alar, apples are still in need of a cleanup," and warn of a "chemical crisis" in American produce.

One staffer even claimed "just a bite or two of an apple, peach or pear, which had legal residues of (the insecticide) methyl parathion, could cause dizziness, nausea and blurred vision" in a child.

Such freewheeling misinformation is the real threat to our children's health.

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