Rachel's Precaution Reporter #2
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

From: Grist ...............................................[This story printer-friendly]
July 14, 2005


French constitution gets a dash of green

[Rachel's introduction: France adds the precautionary principle to its constitution.]

By David Case

Ahhh, the French. Toujours inexplicable. They chain smoke. They drink enough espresso before noon to cause lockjaw. And they jam their veins with butter, cheese, and beef. But despite how reckless they seem, their leaders recently made a stand for public health, granting every citizen the right to a balanced and healthy environment.

That's right. In their battles against climate change, genetically modified organisms, and nuclear reprocessing, the French now enjoy the support of an "environment charter" amended to the country's constitution. "Decisions made responding to today's needs should not compromise the capacity of future generations and other populations to satisfy their own needs," the document's preamble proclaims. In 10 articles, it then outlines a series of environmental rights and responsibilities incumbent on the French people, ranging from the right to access information about the environment to an obligation upon political leaders to promote sustainable development.

The charter, ratified this spring, was the pet project of President Jacques Chirac, who first championed it at the time of his 2002 reelection. At first, the idea met with the typical opposition from business groups. But Chirac, an astute politician, piggybacked the charter onto an important national assembly vote that would clear the way for the European Union constitution referendum.

In doing so, he undermined resistance from the right, which was willing to go along with the add-on to ensure support for the E.U., explains David Michel of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University. While the E.U. referendum was later defeated by a popular vote, the environmental charter (which wasn't put to the people) had already prevailed by a margin of 531 to 23 in a special joint session of the French parliament.

Hard Chirac Cafe

So why, readers may ask, would a conservative, business-friendly president expend clout on a high-profile environmental initiative? Chirac, who has been a strong supporter of the Kyoto climate agreement and who delivered an unusually blunt speech at the Johannesburg world summit, seemed earnestly to believe in the idea. But there were also political motivations.

Internationally, France likes to be a leader on all matters European. And when it comes to the environment, France conspicuously lags behind other countries in the union, falling behind on implementing the E.U.'s green directives, according to Yannick Jadot, campaign director for Greenpeace France. ("Directives," in E.U.-speak, are requirements for member countries to pass specific laws.) The charter was seen as a sort of nuclear option that would catapult France to the forefront. Moreover, by elevating the country's environmental profile, Chirac would drive the wedge deeper between Paris and that crass, unpopular Texan in the White House. "The charter enables France to stick its thumb in the eye of the U.S.," says Michel.

On the domestic front, despite health habits that might perplex Americans, the French populace actually has a substantial environmental ethic. For example, citizens have valued natural foods and non-industrial farming since long before the organic craze got traction in the U.S.; food labels go so far as to describe the type of sustenance served to chicken or cattle. When it comes to energy, a French person consumes only about half the Btus of an American, and the nation has cut its emissions of carbon dioxide by 20 percent since 1980, to the lowest levels in Western Europe. (By contrast, emissions have increased in the U.S. by about 22 percent in the same period.)

And in recent years, a chain of environmental mishaps has left many French feeling under siege -- and demanding answers. These threats have included mad cow disease; "Frankenfoods" from the U.S.; a series of unusual storms on the continent, including one that ravaged trees in the historic gardens at Versailles; an unusually strong summer heat wave blamed for the death of thousands of senior citizens; and a pair of oil spills -- from the ship Erika, off Brittany, and from the Prestige, off nearby Galicia -- that devastated birds and fish and soiled hundreds of miles of beaches.

But what does the charter really mean? Is it strong enough to calm Gallic nerves? Will the threats abate? Will the clouds in French cafes dissipate, and Parisian streets no longer be minefields of poodle turds?

Well, maybe. It's too early to tell for sure. While pundits agree that the charter can't be ignored, they debate the extent to which it will really make a difference.

Vive la Difference

The French hailed the charter as a first of its kind, and proponents described it in grandiose terms. The amendment "raises sustainable development to the highest level in our legal structure, alongside the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen," declared former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin before it was passed.

In truth, constitutional environmental rights turn out to be more the rule than the exception. Of the world's 190-odd nations, the constitutions of 117 mention protection of the environment or natural resources, according to an analysis by Earthjustice. Fifty-six -- including unlikely progressives such as Tajikistan and Angola -- explicitly recognize the right to a clean and healthy environment; 20 hold those who harm the environment liable. The U.S. Constitution, by contrast, contains no explicit environmental reference.

Jeremy Shapiro, a France expert at the Brookings Institution, points out that while the charter certainly makes a difference, it is not as colossal as it might be in an American context. First, constitutional amendments don't represent the monumental social shifts that they typically have in the U.S. Nor are they very rare: France's current, 1958 constitution carries 19 amendments, five of which have been enacted since 2000.

Additionally, Shapiro argues that unlike in the U.S., where lobbyists and courts influence the interpretation of laws, the French government maintains a high degree of control over its legal creations. As a result, he says, France "can pass something like this that's politically popular but, within limits, not have to live with the consequences."

Enforcement and interpretation of environmental rights largely depend on the Conseil Constitutionnel, or Constitutional Council. That body reviews laws in a role similar to the Supreme Court in the U.S., but answers the queries of parliamentarians, reviewing the legal code to determine constitutional compliance, rather than hearing cases brought before it by outsiders. As a result, the French system is more directly controlled by elites, and less accessible to the public. "The Conseil is not the kind of place where civil-society groups can exercise influence," Shapiro says. "It's made up of the grandees of French political life. They're not going to be environmental experts."

The charter also depends on a fair bit of idealistic, but "unactionable," language. For example, it calls for environmental education and training, and suggests that research and innovation contribute to the preservation of the environment, but it doesn't commit to specific goals or standards on either of these items.

The American Chamber of Commerce in France, which represents giant American corporations operating in the world's ninth-biggest economy, yawned at the entire matter. Not only did the ACC decline to lobby the issue, it hardly followed the debate. "Almost all of the environment and workplace safety laws in Europe originate in Brussels" at the European Union, explains managing director Stephen B. Pierce. "We don't even have an environment committee in France anymore."

Throw Precaution to the Wind

Where the charter does pack a legal punch is in Article 5, which enshrines the precautionary principle into the constitution. In the case of potentially serious and irreversible environmental damage, the article states, officials should implement measures to minimize the risks. The precautionary principle had already been embodied in French law in 1995, another reason why the charter's opposition didn't call in the big guns. Yet there is little doubt that elevating it to a constitutional level bolsters the green arsenal.

Now the principle trumps other legislation, and on routine government business that pits the environment ministry against, say, the energy ministry, the former will have enhanced fire power. Environmental groups can also conduct their business with the gravitas of a constitutionally guaranteed right behind them. This principle could be used, for example, to restrict genetically modified foods, until scientists can show that they are safe. And it will likely come into play in the near future as the country debates whether to replace or simply decommission nuclear power plants, which supply about three- quarters of France's electricity. (Which "serious and irreversible" risk looms larger: the unknown hazards of long-term radioactive waste storage and Chernobyl-type accidents, or the cataclysmic risk of climate change, for which proponents argue nuclear power is a remedy?)

Still, if the example of other countries is any indicator, French greens will have to fight to sharpen the teeth on their charter. "Russia's constitution has one of the strongest environmental guarantees in the world. It goes on for pages," says Patrick Parenteau, director of the environmental law clinic at Vermont Law School. "China has a good one too, but they're both meaningless. They're not enforceable."

But others do carry legal heft. In 2004, the Costa Rican Supreme Court used the nation's guarantee of a "healthy and ecologically balanced environment" to hold customs officials responsible for not cracking down on fishing vessels using local ports to ship shark fins. (Fishers slice off the fins to make the Asian delicacy shark-fin soup, a practice that is damaging the predator's populations and endangering the balance of aquatic ecosystems.)

"A constitutional guarantee is not just a wonky law," says Marcello Mollo, a lawyer at Earthjustice. "It shows that a healthy environment is a human right. And as seen in the Costa Rican case, it gives rise to a whole host of legal remedies that don't exist under normal environmental law."

For their part, eager French citizens wasted no time in invoking their new rights, albeit in a manner far more pedestrian than its framers may have imagined -- and with mixed results that may foreshadow the results of future struggles. No, they didn't attempt to shut down "les McDo." Instead, a group of conservation organizations used the charter to get a court to block a 100,000-person rave that was to be held in an area outside Paris recognized for its environmental value. The case was filed, and the injunction awarded, just as les raveurs were scheduled to arrive.

The charter definitely made a difference: the groups were only able to get the injunction in time "because the case was urgent, and it concerned a fundamental right of the French constitution," says Michel. But in the end, local officials failed to enforce the injunction. The rave went on as scheduled, trashing the site.

- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -

David Case writes for Men's Journal, Rolling Stone, and National Geographic Adventure. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his French wife, who eats lots of cheese but never leaves an unneeded light on.

Copyright 2005. Grist Magazine, Inc.


From: Environmental Science & Technology .............[This story printer-friendly]
July 13, 2005


QUOTABLE: "While I served as a liaison, the U.S. EPA Science Advisory Board was asked to discuss policy implications of the precautionary principle that was being implemented in Europe as the basis for some environmental regulations.... Christine Todd Whitman and Linda Fisher, who were then the EPA Administrator and the chief of staff, respectively, were quite adamant that the Advisory Board should not even discuss it."

[Rachel's introduction: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science Advisors are not allowed to discuss the precautionary principle.]

By Jerald L. Schnoor, Editor (est@uiowa.edu)

If there is a "no-spin zone" anywhere on earth, it should be in the realm of science. However, the Bush Administration has chosen to spin science in unprecedented ways and now has even begun to censor environmental reports at the final stage of publication. This can only cease when the present administration becomes more transparent, when lobbyists do not have direct influence on government decisions, and when brave souls blow the whistle on what's happening.

A case in point is Rick Piltz, who resigned in March from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and wrote a 14-page memo on how science gets censored (see interview). Piltz spilled the beans that Philip Cooney -- the chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), a lawyer, and a former official of the American Petroleum Institute -- made hundreds of changes to the first and final drafts of the Climate Change Science Program's Strategic Plan, substantially slanting the document and weakening the conclusion that greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming. Last month, Cooney resigned from CEQ and was subsequently hired by ExxonMobil. Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said there was absolutely no connection between Cooney's departure and the furor created by Piltz's resignation.

Another brave soul is Erick Campbell, a former Bureau of Land Management state biologist in Nevada who authored key sections of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the consequences of increased grazing of animals on government land. The draft report warns that such policies would pose a "significant adverse impact on wildlife." When the final EIS was published, the Bush Administration had removed that phrase and other critical portions before announcing it would relax restrictions on grazing those lands.

Houston, we have a problem. If the system isn't broken, it is (at least) in severe disrepair. To be sure, other administrations have spun science and permeated political views into the rhetoric of inquiry, but this blatant disregard for scientific consensus at the final stage of publication is new and flagrant. I believe the current administration is on a different and dangerous course.

Scientific reports are vetted (censored) by lawyers and bureaucrats at CEQ at the final stage of the approval process without further scientific input. White House officials are used as watchdogs to create a chilling effect in committee meetings, while coordinating strategy with conservative think tanks and industry lobbyists. Substantive reports, such as the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's third assessment report Climate Change 2001, which were vetted by hundreds or even thousands of scientists, are being removed from websites (byte burning), citation lists, follow-on reports, and from discussion by administration officials in a policy designed to erase "unfavorable" reports from the collective memory. "Skeptics" are routinely deployed to respond to consensus reports, even though their ranks are few in number and low in scientific stature (Science 2005, 308, 482). Uncertainty is emphasized as a political strategy to confuse the public and to delay or curtail reasonable government action. Relying on uncertainty as an excuse for inaction is the hallmark of the Bush Administration's environmental policy. It is invoked in almost every situation, a kind of safety shield against any regulation that may upset special interests.

While I served as a liaison, the U.S. EPA Science Advisory Board was asked to discuss policy implications of the precautionary principle that was being implemented in Europe as the basis for some environmental regulations. The precautionary principle states, "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost- effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." Christine Todd Whitman and Linda Fisher, who were then the EPA Administrator and the chief of staff, respectively, were quite adamant that the Advisory Board should not even discuss it. At the time, I was really perplexed, but in hindsight I believe that Administrator Whitman knew that it was a nonstarter with the Bush Administration and could only get her (and us) into trouble. It's a shame, because making decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty is precisely what's needed.

When science gets censored, I suspect that most citizens have no way of knowing. Still, the truth will finally come out -- that's the beauty of the scientific method. But when science gets censored, it is a sign of the low regard in which government officials hold scientists and their process. This attitude also runs counter to the best interests of the country. People and the environment lose, and it has to stop.

Copyright 2005 American Chemical Society


From: The Record (Sacramento, Calif.) ....................[This story printer-friendly]
August 21, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: Poor enforcement contributes to the persistent failure of the risk-based regulatory system -- one more reason why a precautionary approach is needed.]

By Hank Shaw, Capitol Bureau Chief, The Record

SACRAMENTO -- Every year, illegally used pesticides sicken thousands of farm workers laboring long hours to harvest California's agricultural bounty. But all too often, justice for the campesinos is slow, weak or nonexistent.

California's agriculture commissioners -- the county officials responsible for protecting farm workers and the public from mishandled pesticides -- often perform perfunctory inspections and fail to levy fines against violators, a Record investigation has found.

Such spotty enforcement has emboldened unscrupulous growers and allowed others to become sloppy, skipping safety precautions and causing permanent injuries. Many of the insecticides and herbicides that farm workers breathe and touch every day can damage the eyes and lungs and are linked to increased cancer rates, sterility, Parkinson's disease, miscarriages and nerve damage.

A Record analysis of six years of state Department of Pesticide Regulation data shows many pesticide violations that injure workers result in nothing more than a warning letter. And those that do draw fines average about $500 per worker.

A few agriculture commissioners use fines to send stern messages to growers. Sacramento County's Frank Carl is one of them. Carl levied 208 fines for misuse of pesticides from 1999 through 2004.

Others, such as San Joaquin County Agriculture Commissioner Scott Hudson and his Stanislaus County counterpart, Dennis Gudgel, say they'd rather educate growers and see them comply with the law than levy fines against them.

As a result, San Joaquin, the sixth-largest agriculture county in California, levied only 48 fines against pesticide violators in the six-year period from 1999 through 2004. Stanislaus, the state's seventh-largest farming county, levied just 18.

Hudson and Gudgel acknowledge that results of a compliance-based system can look a lot like inaction, although they say they are working hard to prevent pesticide misuse through educational forums.

But most field workers say they've never even heard of agriculture commissioners, let alone know who they are, what they do or how to contact them. Unknown thousands of illnesses are never reported, leaving shattered lives hidden in quiet corners of rural California.

The endemic inaction frustrates advocates for the state's 400,000 farm workers. "For the most part, it's not like the commissioners are bad actors," United Farm Workers spokesman Marc Grossman said. "They just don't do anything."

Commissioners say successfully prosecuting violators isn't easy. Add to this the difficulties of a largely Spanish-speaking work force of illegal immigrants fearful of retribution from their bosses, the transient nature of most farm workers and overstressed inspection departments.

It's no wonder many cases slip through the commissioners' fingers.

Benito Salomon's case did.

The 37-year-old Marysville resident came to California from Nayarit, Mexico, to seek his fortune. But pesticide poisoning cost him a lung and both kidneys and has left him a quaking wreck. He cannot walk. The grower responsible received no fine.

A dismal record

The Record graded California's 55 agriculture commissioners based on the quality of their inspections -- how many violations they find -- and what they do once they find them.

Overall, only a tiny percentage of pesticide violations resulted in fines, but enforcement varies widely from county to county. For example, records show a violator in Sacramento County is about 10 times more likely to draw a fine than a violator in San Joaquin, Tulare, Kern, Kings or Merced counties.

Enforcement is even worse in Monterey, Stanislaus and Merced counties. Combined, these three counties wrote only 69 fines for illegal pesticide use from 1999 through 2004. Sacramento County levied that many in 2004 alone.

Standing at the bottom of the enforcement scale are the Sacramento Valley counties of Yuba and Solano. Between them, they levied only three pesticide fines in six years. Solano recently replaced its agriculture commissioner. A county spokeswoman said the commissioner chose not to apply for another term.

It is not uncommon for violators to receive either no punishment or a symbolic fine even when they injure workers, residents or motorists.

In January 2003, three Kern County residents went to the emergency room and 11 others fell ill after a grower fumigated the soil in nearby fields with metam-sodium, a powerful toxin. The fine worked out to $100 per illness.

In April 2000, a helicopter sprayed 22 cauliflower harvesters with pesticides in Monterey County. Shortly after the helicopter passed, the workers developed headaches, nausea, numb lips and the shakes. Although the grower took the workers to a hospital, the county agriculture commissioner issued neither a warning letter nor a fine to either the grower or the sprayer.

And in a recent San Joaquin County case, at least 25 walnut processors reported symptoms ranging from dizziness to nausea to shortness of breath after the management fogged the plant with the insecticide resmethrin. Exposure to resmethrin can increase chances of sterility and contribute to birth defects and other reproductive disorders.

Even though this is the largest reported illness case in recent San Joaquin history, Hudson said he couldn't prove the owner broke the law, because the pesticide label lacked specific rules for airing out the warehouse or for how long to keep people away.

Rashes, nausea and cancer

Braulio Martinez blames pesticides for ruining his sight. Years after he was sprayed while working in a vineyard, the 53-year-old Tulare County resident still endures sometimes unbearable pain in his eyes.

He remembers the day. A plane sprayed a nearby field while he was working in Kings County. He does not know what he was exposed to, but he began feeling symptoms that night.

"My head hurt. I was tired and felt like I wanted to throw up," Martinez said. "Within a month's time, I noticed a burning and itching in my eyes, and the more I scratched, the worse it felt."

Martinez never reported his illness.

Cases like Martinez's are typical, because California serves as the nation's produce aisle. Pests prefer fruit, nuts and vegetables to crops such as wheat and corn. Growers of those preferred crops use more pesticides to keep them blemish-free for choosy shoppers.

Many fruits and vegetables must be picked by hand, putting workers in close proximity with a brew of pesticides and herbicides whose sole purpose is to kill.

Most of the truly nasty pesticides have been banned in California, such as chlordane and DDT, and the days of farm workers collapsing from immediate contact with pesticides are largely over. Most acute poisonings now cause rashes, welts, nausea, headaches or dizziness.

A group of workers at a Yuba County ranch said last week that they often suffer from rashes and irritation due to constant contact with sulfur. Some have rashes or boils on exposed skin. Noe Vilchez said his eyes are always burning, much like Martinez's.

Death can come from long-term exposure to a variety of pesticides. Scores can cause cancer, reproductive problems, nerve damage and Parkinson's disease.

The nightmare for Marysville's Benito Salomon began eight years ago, when he was sprayed by pesticides in a Yuba County peach orchard.

Nausea hit him first. He started to cough up blood. Still, Salomon returned to work day after day, against his friends' advice.

His condition worsened. Salomon sought medical attention, but the clinic could not help him.

"And so the day came when I just couldn't work anymore," he said through a translator.

Salomon spends his days now on a mattress near a swamp cooler, watched over by his mother, religious icons and a small collection of Mexican soccer-team hats.

"I miss working and feeling healthy," he said, propping himself up on a set of shaky arms no thicker than those of a young girl. "Right now I can't even go to the restroom by myself.

"Sometimes I have dreams, and in the dreams I am walking. But when I wake up I can't even move."

Dr. Marion Moses is one of the nation's foremost experts on the effects of pesticides on the human body. As doctor to the late farm- labor leader Cesar Chavez, Moses has had good reason to study the toxins.

Since catastrophic illness has become rare, growers and agriculture commissioners often downplay pesticide exposure, Moses said. "Their standard is if you're not in the boneyard, you're fine," she said. "That's not the point. The point is unacceptable legal exposures."

Moses likened the situation to lead exposure. Chronic or high-level exposure to lead can cause a slew of health problems, including brain damage and death.

"They didn't wait until workers were sick" to ban items with lead, Moses said. "There was a level that you could not exceed. You don't have that with pesticides."

And lead is easy to detect. Pesticides are not, which fools many doctors. "A lot of doctors really don't know how to diagnose it," she said.

Enforcement vs. compliance

Some agriculture commissioners view themselves as enforcers, a sort of "crop cop." They'll fine a grower when they catch a sprayer not wearing goggles even if he or she wasn't hurt -- because the potential was there. A fine sends a message.

Other commissioners will send their message with a warning letter. Some simply ask the grower not to do it again.

Empathy for the world's most-heavily regulated farmers is a prime reason for such leniency. Many commissioners come from farming families, and a few even oversee the operations of their relatives. Indeed, an agriculture commissioner's official job is to promote farming in a county.

Commissioners say they wrestle with this conflict.

Most have come to the conclusion that enforcing pesticide laws protects workers and helps law-abiding farmers who have a right to use pesticides properly.

Sacramento's Carl is one of the toughest enforcers in the state. He instructs his inspectors to levy a fine whenever they see a violation that endangers a worker.

"If it's a worker-safety violation in Sacramento County, you get a fine. Period," Carl said.

Former Calaveras County Agriculture Commissioner Jerry Howard -- who was hired in Solano County last month to step up enforcement -- agreed.

"I have zero tolerance for spraying people," he said. "To me, that's the capital crime in pesticide use."

One case in particular illustrates Carl's strict stance.

In 1998, Carl fined Lodi-based grape grower Felten-Mehlhaff Farms $17,856 for allowing 14 workers to enter a Sacramento County vineyard while it was being treated with sulfur, not taking them to a doctor after they were exposed and failing to train them and 37 other workers in pesticide safety. Chronic or high-level exposure to sulfur can lead to lung problems and skin damage.

Carl fined Felten-Mehlhaff on a per-worker basis, something rarely done by his colleagues.

Hudson, Gudgel and others say they, too, will fine for serious safety cases. Hudson fined a grower $5,200 in 2001 for poisoning nearby residents with methyl bromide.

But they say they try to educate growers and pesticide companies about the law so they aren't forced to levy fines.

"Our goal is to avoid getting to a fine," Hudson said. "Our goal is for compliance."

As Gudgel put it: "Do we measure the quality of a program based on the number of tickets we write, or do we measure it on the instance of compliance?" Hudson and Gudgel say a new push for enforcement by the state diminishes their educational efforts. They say they're getting dinged for focusing too heavily on compliance.

"There's been a growing concern that enforcement in the pesticide area needs to be stronger," Hudson said, noting that his office should issue more fines in 2005 than it did last year. "We've responded accordingly."

Starvation, ignorance and fear

Even strict commissioners can investigate only what they know about. Carl said he did not find out about the Lodi grape grower's violation until he was notified by a representative of California Rural Legal Assistance.

All of the commissioners interviewed for this report said their pesticide enforcement has suffered because they have lost staff to budget cuts. They also sometimes must shift efforts to deal with industry issues, such as the spread of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which carries a grapevine-killing disease.

As just one example of shrinking departments, the San Joaquin County Agriculture Commissioner's Office employed 65 people in 1960. It now employs 49.

The decline is noticeable. San Joaquin County Farm Bureau Federation President Mike Robinson, who grows alfalfa and other field crops in the Delta, says that although he attends Hudson's educational seminars, county inspectors have never visited his fields.

"We really don't see them a lot," Robinson said.

Farm worker Mario Murillo, a 15-year veteran of ranches from Murietta to Marysville, said he has never met an inspector from a county agriculture commissioner's office.

Hudson, Carl and others also blast the system for reporting pesticide- related illness, which requires doctors to report to the commissioners' offices any potential pesticide cases. But this rarely happens.

State records show that only one illness in five is reported, Department of Pesticide Regulation spokesman Glenn Brank said. That's why department agents comb the state's worker's compensation files to glean other cases.

Farm workers and their advocates say they are actively discouraged from reporting illnesses and often are punished when they do. A worker named Steven, who did not want his last name published for fear of retribution, said several of his co-workers were fired recently after complaining about horrible working conditions at a Marysville farm.

The realities of migrant life are another factor. Many farm laborers entered California illegally and fear deportation more than pesticide exposure. Most speak no English and have no vehicles to drive themselves to doctors. They almost always lack health insurance.

"Workers don't know how to report it," said California Rural Legal Assistance paralegal Luis Rivera, whose territory includes San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties. "When you go to a labor camp, you will not see a public telephone, you will not see public transportation."

None of the workers interviewed last week at a Yuba County ranch had ever heard of an agriculture commissioner, and all said they thought their only recourse if they got sick was to tell the patron -- their boss. They said that wouldn't do any good.

Tulare County's Martinez, the worker permanently injured by misused pesticides, said the same thing.

"You know, I was thinking about my check," he said. "I wanted to keep working."

New regime

Mary-Ann Warmerdam, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's new chief of the Department of Pesticide Regulation, says she has begun cracking down on weak or inconsistent pesticide enforcement.

In the past 10 months, Warmerdam -- a former lobbyist for the California Farm Bureau Federation -- has overhauled the state guidelines for pesticide enforcement, reminded agriculture commissioners that they can call in district attorneys for serious cases and has begun overseeing county-specific plans designed to address specific enforcement problems.

The commissioners have caught Warmerdam's drift. Hudson says he has stepped up enforcement, as has Gudgel. Both commissioners are developing improvement plans for their pesticide enforcement with the state.

Legislators also are doing their part. Last year, Schwarzenegger signed legislation sponsored by Kern County's Sen. Dean Florez, a Democrat. The law boosts maximum fines for pesticide violations.

Now Los Angeles-area Sen. Martha Escutia, also a Democrat, wants to require agriculture commissioners to act more like Carl in Sacramento or Solano's Howard. Her bill would require commissioners to impose a fine whenever a worker's health or safety is threatened.

The legislation is stalled, because Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews, D- Tracy, chairwoman of the Assembly Agriculture Committee, favors a compromise bill that preserves some discretion for the commissioners. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, whose parents were farm workers, has taken an interest in Escutia's bill, which is expected to re-emerge in the next few weeks.

Farmers are not happy with the shift toward stronger enforcement. Farm Bureau President Robinson called the new focus "warped."

"It's a punitive type of thing rather than rewards," Robinson said. "If you do your education, and everybody gets it right, you shouldn't have to write fines."

Salomon's quaking limbs, his dialysis machine and the oxygen tank he's tethered to remind him every moment that growers don't always get it right. And when they don't, even "justice" amounts to a few dollars out of their pocket. No amount of money will free Salomon from his little room.

"I live only in suffering," he said. "I am now just a piece of history."

Record staff writer Karina Ioffee contributed to this report.

Contact Capitol Bureau Chief Hank Shaw at 916 441-4078 or sacto@recordnet.com


From: American Council on Science & Health ............[This story printer-friendly]
July 15, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: "The precautionary principle is an anti- progress, anti-technology ideology that would cause the health of our nation to stagnate instead of steadily improving."]

By Sara Cuccio, American Council on Science and Health

Once again, proponents of the precautionary principle have tried to convince us that we are always "better safe than sorry." Dr. Bruce Barrett recently published an article in favor of using this poorly defined doctrine to govern public health issues, making it in effect an institutionalized "fear factor."

The UN Rio Declaration of 1992 states that "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." As applied, the principle would cause various scientific activities and technologies to be banned, even after tests have failed to show demonstrable harm. It turns out that there may actually be more risk in using this principle than in not using it, as it often leads to rejection of the same technological advances that have enhanced human health and longevity.

Advocates of the precautionary principle make arguments that reveal their stance as ideological and anti-technological. Barrett dramatically claims that due to under-researched chemicals and industrialization, "humanity now threatens the existence of hundreds of species, and perhaps the long-term health of the planet as a whole." He argues that there are "ethical responsibilities" to interrupt even alleged and potential threats posed by humans. He should remember, though, that we also have an ethical responsibility to use technological resources to move humanity forward and save lives. Barrett calls for more regulation and "better science." Clearly, though, "better science" comes only from research and innovation.

Proponents of the precautionary principle must know that nothing is completely risk-free. Of course, risks must be evaluated for any new product or technique, but limits must be set as to how much proof of risk is necessary before innovations are banned. No matter how many risks we prove untrue there will always be unknowns, and focusing on these minor or hypothetical threats will greatly impede productive activities. The risk of inaction must also be considered when bans are placed on the development of potentially groundbreaking procedures and practices -- banning them can produce risks in itself. ACSH president Dr. Elizabeth Whelan cites the examples of pesticides and pharmaceuticals in a 2000 editorial and uses the case of chlorine to counter the precautionists. Chlorine, while poisonous at high exposures, is needed to disinfect our water supply, to make necessary pesticides, and to create lifesaving medications. While there are no proven harmful effects from appropriate use of chlorine, and while it has proven to be lifesaving, precautionary principle advocates still argue against chlorine because of hypothetical risks. Further examples can be found in the cases of blood transfusions and organ transplants, both undeniably major advances in medical therapy. Furthermore, had the precautionary principle been used fifty years ago, virtually no pharmaceuticals would be available today. Had it been in effect one hundred years ago, the automobile and air travel would never have been developed.

In addition, fearing all of the possible minor risks of a product or activity takes up time, money, and resources that should be used instead on research, prevention, and treatment efforts -- such as water chlorination.

The precautionary principle is an anti-progress, anti-technology ideology that would cause the health of our nation to stagnate instead of steadily improving. Proponents of this principle are blind to the benefits of technology and want amateur critics to have ultimate power to inhibit the work of qualified scientists -- "just in case."

Sara Cuccio is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health.

Visitor Responses

Kazimiera J. Cottam, PhD (July 16, 2005)

I am convinced this article is misguided. The precautionary principle should definitely be applied in reference to toxic chemicals, especially when used for cosmetic purposes. Chlorine should be used in public pools to kill germs, but this use is necessary--it is not cosmetic! No dandelion is worth anyone's death and disease. No child should be unnecessarily exposed to toxic chemicals. And we shouldn't compare apples and oranges: for example, driving a car is another matter, as its usefulness, one might say a necessity in many cases, outweighs the risk of injury and death. Of course, there must be an emphasis on safe driving. On the other hand, there is no such thing as safe use of lawn herbicides! In other words, common sense enters into the discussion.

E Soph (July 16, 2005)

Ms. Cuccio believes that scientific uncertainty should be the basis for inaction and delay. Her method of thinking was used by the paint and petrochemical industries to delay (for almost 50 years!) meaningful actions to protect children from lead poisoning. Her method of thinking is used today by the Bush administration to delay meaningful actions to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. Proponents of the precautionary principle believe that scientific uncertainty demands ethical, humane, and innovative actions, not obfuscation and half-truths designed to protect the interests of irresponsible industries that endanger the healthful future of the planet and all of its inhabitants.

P Duerr (July 18, 2005)

I am disturbed by the responses to Ms. Cuccio's position. In defense of her position she has captured the problems with the precautionary principle and the motivations by the people that often invoke it very well. The logic of Kazimiera's response is severely lacking. Toxicity is defined by the amount of a substance not the substance itself. It is interesting that using herbicides is an unnecessary risk but somehow swimming in a pool is not. Since when is a swimming pool necessary? If chlorine posses a risk are there not other recreational activities that could be substituted to eliminate that exposure to chlorine? Common sense has never been part of the precautionary principle. E Soph attacks irresponsible industries for endangering our health and the planet. Undoubtedly there have and continue to be abuses by industry. However, overall technology and industry have improved the lives of billions of people through out the world. That is a fact not a half-truth. Using greenhouse gas emissions as an example is a wonderful demonstration of threat of the precautionary principle. The existing plans will not reduce CO2 in a meaningful way nor will it have even a measurable impact on global temperature. Yet these plans will impose a huge cost on the world's poorest resulting in more suffering and death. How dare you talk about ethics and humane actions if that is your position. More people need to speak out against these positions and thinking or future generations will pay a high cost for our fear and inaction.

About the Editor: Todd Seavey is Director of Publications at ACSH and edits FactsAndFears. His opinions are not necessarily ACSH's.

He can be reached at seavey@acsh.org.

AMERICAN COUNCIL ON SCIENCE AND HEALTH, 1995 BROADWAY, 2ND FLOOR, NEW YORK, NY 10023-5860 TEL: (212) 362-7044, FAX: (212) 362-4919 E-MAIL: acsh@acsh.org

Copyright 1997-2004 American Council on Science and Health


Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed to know the arguments used by slaveholders.

Rachel's Precaution Reporter is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

As you come across stories that illustrate the precautionary principle -- or the need for the precautionary principle -- please Email them to us at rpr@rachel.org.

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