The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)
July 14, 2005


By Pam Heatherington

It has become a commonplace of journalism, in seeking the grail of
"balance," to cover a news story as an argument between an issue's
partisans and critics, then shrug, leaving the reader with the
impression that the truth must lie somewhere in between. The status
quo is probably OK; go on about your business and don't worry too

So it was with "Pesticides' risk is a big question" in the July 9
Tribune, subtitled "It all depends on who you talk to: the government
or organic food proponents." An organics spokesman was quoted as
saying that pesticide residues are present in virtually all
industrially grown food. He was countered by a food safety expert
employed at a university funded by industrial agriculture interests,
saying that "you can never prove safety," individual pesticide
residues are very low, and "it's the dose that makes the poison ...
not the presence or absence of pesticides."

The article concluded that pesticide exposure might pose some risk for
children or during early pregnancy, but as a rule, residues "are at
low levels and meet government criteria."

Setting aside the reporter's omission of the people who harvest all
the fruits and vegetables from our heavily toxic fields and the
documented health problems they suffer because of exposure to
pesticide and herbicide residues, there are two problems with this
comforting conclusion. First, the risk assessments undertaken by the
government are based on measurement of the effects of the dosage of a
single chemical, as opposed to the way things work in the real world,
where 70,000 synthetic chemicals interact in millions of different
combinations, creating chemical byproducts and exposure effects that
are unidentified and unknown.

Second, many pesticides are persistent organic pollutants. They can
persist in the environment for decades without breaking down. That
means the real dosage we are getting is cumulative, concentrating over
time as the chemicals move up the food chain (space won't allow for
inclusion of the downstream impacts like the dead zone in the Gulf of
Mexico, fish kills and fish and amphibian abnormalities). Depending on
what you eat, you can (and you do) accumulate a "body burden" of
pesticide concentrations more than 10 million times the level of the
residue on the corn flakes and berries you had for breakfast. The
Center for Disease Control documents a partial list of pesticides
found in our bodies.

Yes, science can never prove safety. Science can never prove anything.
It can only gather data and test hypotheses in experiments, making
tentative conclusions that are subject to further challenge and tests.
But when confronted with a practice that clearly causes harm, the
correct response is not to claim insufficient data and hope for the
best, but to apply the precautionary principle: Move to avoid the harm
rather than wait until we have conclusive evidence in hand. Phase out
classes of chemicals that have been linked to catastrophic disease and
neurological disorders, develop alternatives to persistently polluting
pesticides and adopt a zero- tolerance policy for their release into
the environment.

This plan -- far superior to the current plan of endless study and
setting exposure levels despite our ignorance of cumulative effects --
is outlined in an article by Dr. Joe Thornton entitled, "Beyond
Risk: An Ecological Paradigm to Prevent Global Chemical Pollution."

It represents the shift in focus necessary if we are to break away
from the uncritically accepted unreality that leads to soothing
conclusions about acceptably low levels and meeting government
criteria, and make the protection of human and environmental health a
priority over an industry's short-term profits.

Copyright 2005 San Luis Obispo Tribune