Growing number of children with cancer shows we need to limit the use of pesticides

By Elinor Weiss
Copyright 1998 Buffalo News
September 2, 1998

As I go through the clutter, a disturbing phone conversation I had a few days ago comes to mind. I had been speaking to a man who had worked for trade companies for the pesticide industry and had gone to various conferences on the subject.

"Pesticides are not a problem," he said with authority. "DDT was only banned because of public pressure. There are no tests to show it's bad."

I'm sure I paled when I heard his verdict. I wondered where this man got his information. Hadn't he heard of Rachel Carson and her book, "The Silent Spring"?

"The danger of pesticides in foods is highly overrated," he continued. "We should be more worried about the fat in our diets."

I had been glad I was having the conversation on the phone because I knew I couldn't hide the look of dismay on my face.

"But fatty foods contain more pesticides and hormones," I protested. "That's part of the reason why you shouldn't eat them. The harmful chemicals collect in the fat of animals, we ingest them and then they collect in our body tissue."

It bothered me that he did not understand the consequences of ingesting pesticide ingredients that mimic estrogen or can spur the production of estrogen in the body. I had hoped the word was out that these estrogen chemicals stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells.

But the man seemed uninterested, so I decided not to pursue the subject any further.

"People make up their minds," I thought to myself, "and they are determined not to let the facts get in their way."

And now I sit holding an analysis of a 2-year-old study by the National Resource Council on carcinogens in the human diet. The analysis, which criticized the study, was done because the council concluded that fat and excess calories are a bigger health risk than pesticides.

The council's report had within it a false premise that pesticides are stringently regulated. The report, which was partially funded by R.J. Nabisco, muddled the discussion on pesticides and cancer. The study had focused only on adults while ignoring levels of tolerance for children.

Children are like canaries in a coal mine. They are telling us that something terribly wrong is happening in our environment. Children are too young to have their cancer attributed to years of smoking or a poor lifestyle. Perhaps exposure to any hazardous substance before birth could cause health problems in children.

Statistics from March 1998 from the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that between 1973 and 1995 there was an increase in leukemia, kidney, soft tissue, brain and nervous system cancers in children from birth to 4 years old. During that period, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which has been linked to pesticides, increased 128 percent in teen-agers.

Why isn't more being done? Perhaps because agencies that are supposed to protect us may have a conflict of interest. People seem particularly surprised that politics can affect the outcome of a report about food. And yet there are economic links that bind food, pesticide manufacturers and agricultural interests to politics and science.

Common sense dictates that steps must be taken to protect public health. Federal and state laws should limit pesticide use. Many older pesticides that are still in use don't meet current health standards. Many pesticides have been registered based on fraudulent tests. Unfortunately, under the national pesticide law, no pesticide registration can be revoked due to shoddy testing practices.

Using the least toxic approach necessary in dealing with environmental problems should be basic practice. Children, who are the most vulnerable, are exposed to a barrage of pesticides in their homes, on their lawns, in their schools and in their foods. Research must take into account all of these multiple exposures to toxins.

If toxic-exposure standards were based on a child's protection level, we might have healthier adults. The chances of getting cancer could decline from the present rate of one out of three people and three out of four families.

Counties and municipalities should be given the power to regulate pesticides. We should stop exporting restricted and banned pesticides to other countries. Most of all, we must recognize that cancer may be caused by the environment.
I've stuffed the papers back on the shelf. Through the clear doors I see wads of sheets sticking out. They serve as a reminder of all the work that is left to be done. ELINOR WEISS, a Buffalo public school teacher, is an environmental advocate who focuses on issues affecting women, children and families.

For writer guidelines for columns appearing in this space, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Opinion Pages Guidelines, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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