Pesticide Turkeys

By Steven Milloy
Copyright 1999
November 24, 1999

Thanksgiving is only one day away. Sens. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) might want to be careful.

The senators announced at a recent press conference the introduction of new legislation, called the "School Environment Protection Act." The legislation would require prior notification of parents when pesticides are going to be used in schools. Notification doesn't sound like an unreasonable thing to do, so what's the problem?

The legislation is intended to play on unfounded fear of pesticides in hopes of promoting more anti-pesticide sentiment, with the ultimate goal of halting use of pesticides. And what's wrong with that? Plenty.

I had the opportunity to attend the press conference where I asked a revealing question of Dr. Philip Landrigan, a well-known environmental activist who is also chairman of community and preventative medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York and was the scientific "expert" at the press conference.

In the aftermath of a 1993 National Research Council Report on children and pesticides, Dr. Landrigan admitted to the media that "No disease has ever been documented that stems from legal applications of pesticides..." Reminding Dr. Landrigan of his earlier statement and the fact that pesticides have been widely used for more than 50 years, I asked him what has changed to make him support this legislation. I also asked Dr. Landrigan if he could give me a specific scientific reference that supported the need for the legislation.

After much fumbling for an answer, Sen. Torricelli had to prompt Dr. Landrigan -- the reputed expert -- about a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that supposedly reported children exposed to pesticides in their homes had a leukemia rate four times higher than those not exposed.

But there is no such study. I did find, however, another study in the October issue of Environmental Health perspectives, a journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The study was a critical review of 31 epidemiologic studies published between 1970 and 1996 that investigated whether occupational or residential exposure to pesticides by either parents or children was related to increased risk of childhood cancer.

The study concluded, "an etiologic relationship between pesticide exposure and childhood cancer is far from proven" -- not a surprising result given that pesticides must pass a battery of 120 tests before being approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

There is no doubt the lack of scientific data about pesticides posing a threat to children played a role in California Gov. Gray Davis' decision to veto legislation requiring school districts to notify parents 72 hours before applying pesticides on school grounds. And California can hardly be considered a slouch on the regulation of chemicals.

Properly applied pesticides are safe. And our children's health often depends on pesticide application. Children face serious health threats in schools from cockroaches, fire ants, wasps, mosquitos, poison oak and ivy, rats and mice.

Groundless fear of pesticides can be deadly. During the recent outbreak of mosquito-borne disease in the New York metropolitan area, there were 5 deaths and almost 40 cases of encephalitis. But in nearby New Jersey, where local officials make prudent use of pesticides, only one confirmed case of disease has occurred.

So why do Sens. Torricelli and Murray want to scare parents and children about pesticides? A conspicuous presence at the press was the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides -- an extreme, anti-pesticide advocacy group. As part of its campaign to rid the world of pesticides, NCAMP has been leading the charge to force schools to notify parent prior to pesticide use. The hope is parents will be sufficiently alarmed force schools to halt pesticide use.

Appropriate use of pesticides has helped us achieve the highest standard of living ever. From increasing agricultural crop yields to preventing or halting the spread of infectious disease, we depend greatly on these invaluable chemicals.

Let's not be frightened by claims that have no basis in fact.

Comments on this posting?

Click here to post a public comment on the Trash Talk Bulletin Board.

Click here to send a private comment to the Junkman.