Don't like bugs? Then this could be a very bad year for you. The Environmental Protection Agency may promulgate the most sweeping anti-insecticide regulations in U.S. history. If it does, billions of dollars worth of crops may be lost annually, children will die from cockroach-related asthma and fire ant bites, and Lyme disease-carrying ticks will proliferate. And you may find that some of those raisins in your raisin bran, well, aren't.
At issue is a class of insecticides known as organophosphates. Indoors they are a powerful remedy for cockroaches, fleas and termites. Outdoors they are used on practically every food crop you can name. For some crops, there are absolutely no approved alternatives; for others, the alternatives are either less effective or more expensive.
In a 1994 study, the Agriculture Department found that eliminating just one of the most common organophosphates, chlorpyrifos, would cost $150 million annually. According to Leonard Gianessi at the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, extrapolating this to a ban on all organophosphates - an option the EPA is seriously considering - would cost $1 billion to $2 billion a year.
The argument against organophosphates is essentially that they're poisonous - something that is true of most poisons. The question is how harmful they are to those of us with fewer than six legs. Answer: Not very. Studies on laboratory mice have found that the average 20-pound infant would need to eat 873 apples every day for the rest of his life to approach the chlorpyrifos levels that caused problems in the rodents.
A 1997 EPA memorandum stated that chlorpyrifos "is one of the leading causes of acute insecticide poisoning incidents in the United States." That sounds ominous but isn't. Of almost 1,000 pesticides registered for use in the United States, chlorpyrifos is the fourth most common. It's as if the EPA were claiming Fords are more dangerous than Ferraris because more Fords crash each year.
I spoke with numerous scientists and industry officials, and searched medical and newspaper data bases, and I found not a single adult death or even near death from chlorpyrifos that did not result from intentional (suicidal) ingestion. There appear to be no cases of children dying from drinking it. Long-term health effects from the insecticide have been found only among people who were so sick that they nearly died.
Not good enough, say some environmentalists. They want a total ban on organophosphate household use. One organization, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), also made the preposterous claim in a January report that each day a million children under 5 years of age consume "unsafe levels" of organophosphates, primarily from residue on fruits. It demands, as a first step, an immediate ban on agricultural use of chlorpyrifos and several other organophosphates.
"That would be foolish," says Barbara Petersen, a nutritional biochemist and head of Novigen Sciences Inc. For 20 years, she has evaluated pesticides and done dietary-risk-exposure studies under contract to both the EPA and industry, including some studies in which she collected grocery store samples. "We found extremely low levels" of chlorpyrifos, she says. "In the vast majority, nothing was detected, and when we did detect residues, they were way below levels that EPA has set as permissible."
That's why the EWG and other environmentalists - including top EPA officials - are now warning of the possible "additive" effect of pesticides, essentially arguing that harmless little bits can add up to a harmful level.
Nonsense, says Marcia van Gemert, until recently head of the EPA's toxicology branch. "You can't simply add two or three bodily risks together and conclude they cause a greater risk combined. Our [body] systems are a lot more complicated than that." Different chemicals, she adds, "have different targets, mechanisms, toxicities. They are really all quite different."
She also faults the EWG's "science," saying the group "made a lot of mistakes in exposure estimates." The attack on organophosphates, she says, "is politically, not toxicologically, driven."
Nonetheless, an EPA panel met in April and another will meet this week to explore halting the use of some or all organophosphates on crops, with a decision expected by the end of summer.
One option suggested in an EPA Office of Pesticide Programs internal memo would "revoke all tolerances" for the chemicals. A tolerance is the amount of residue allowed on food, normally set at less than one-tenth the level that might harm anybody. Unless a crop has an established tolerance for a given pesticide, even one piece of fruit or vegetable in a shipment that has any detectable residue can cause the whole lot to be destroyed.
If the EPA were to revoke a pesticide's registration outright, farmers and chemical makers could mount an immediate legal challenge. But in the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, Congress not only allowed the EPA to look at risks without considering benefits but also expanded the agency's enforcement options. Among the agency's new powers is the ability to revoke tolerances. If the EPA follows this course, affected parties will have no way - legal or administrative - to introduce scientific studies, need, or common sense into the equation.
Maybe the EPA will do the right thing. Maybe it won't drive up fruit and vegetable prices, ensuring that children eat less of these foods. Maybe it won't kill asthmatic children by banning potent roach-killing sprays. But a lot of those little guys have their antennae crossed hoping otherwise.
Michael Fumento is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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