Cover Image
close this bookCircle of poison - Pesticides and People in a Hungry World (Food First, 1981)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the documentPreface
View the documentChapter one - The circle of poison
View the documentChapter two - A victim every minute
View the documentChapter three - Dumping: Business as usual
View the documentChapter four - The pesticide boomerang
View the documentChapter five - Pesticides to feed the hungry ?
View the documentChapter six - The global pesticides super-market
View the documentChapter seven - Lubricating the sales machine
View the documentChapter eight - With the advice and consent of government
View the documentChapter nine - Breaking the circle of poison
View the documentBureaucracy glossary
View the documentAppendix A
View the documentAppendix B
View the documentAppendix C
View the documentFor more information
View the documentAbout the institute

Chapter eight - With the advice and consent of government

WHILE THE Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and even the Department of Agriculture are busy subsidizing and promoting pesticide exports, the one U.S. agency directly responsible for pesticide regulation - the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - is strained beyond its capacity to cope with the enormous volume of potentially dangerous chemicals under its jurisdiction. Its warehouses already contain records for over 35,000 chemicals.) At least 1,000 new substances are introduced every year. EPA records catalogue a grisly range of toxic effects: the ability to kill, deform, mutate, and cause brain damage and cancer in living and future generations of animals, including human beings.

The EPA is hamstrung. Due to congressional funding cutbacks and industry pressure, the staff and budget employed to work on pesticides are smaller than those in any one of the 12 large companies which dominate the industry that the EPA is supposed to regulate. The EPA has essentially thrown up its hands, allowing large numbers of "conditional" registrations of pesticides which have not yet been thoroughly tested.

The EPA's monthly enforcement reports chronicle an unending pattern of major and minor violations by pesticide companies, and illustrate the agency's inability or unwillingness to punish violations. The infrequent fines - usually less than $5,000 - are insignificant to a multinational corporation. Chevron, for example, was fined only $3,200 for shipping dieldrin in violation of an EPA suspension order. And a suspension order is one of the strongest actions the EPA can take. Velsicol was fined only $1,600 for failing to register, and for misbranding, the deadly phenoxy herbicide 2,4-D.

If domestic control seems dangerously lax, the international situation is even worse. U.S. law explicitly allows manufacturers to export banned or restricted pesticides. The EPA cannot force U.S. manufacturers to cease production of any pesticide as long as it is destined for overseas use. (Other agencies could force a company to stop production if, for example, it was disabling workers at the American plant.)

Moreover, companies do not have to register their pesticides. And they are free to make "for export only" any unregistered pesticide they please. They do not even have to inform the EPA of the substance's ingredients. Unregistered pesticides now account for more than 25 percent of all U.S. pesticide exports, according to the GAO.

Unregistered Kepone - the deadly nerve toxin which seriously damaged an entire workforce and contaminated the James River in Virginia - was produced for overseas markets where it was applied to bananas grown for U.S. consumers.

Since unregistered pesticides have never been independently evaluated for toxic properties, some of these chemicals may be even more dangerous than those already banned by the EPA. Completely outside of regulatory control, these toxins and their effects remain hidden behind the corporate "trade secrets" veil. Some of these substances are undoubtedly the unidentified chemical residues the FDA frequently detects in imported food. (See Chapter Four.)

EPA notification

AS THE SECOND printing of this book went to press, the Reagan administration was preparing an all-out assault against the only regulatory impediment to unchecked pesticide dumping - a provision in FIFRA requiring "notification" of foreign governments when banned or severely restricted pesticides are exported.

Within eight months of taking office, high officials of the Reagan administration had drafted a report, which was leaked to the press, recommending a virtual dismantling of the notification process. The administration's efforts on the executive level closely resembled an industry initiative in Congress led by the National Agricultural Chemicals Association (NACA). In testimony during the summer of 1981, Jack Early, president of NACA, advocated limiting the notification requirement, in a way which would render it virtually useless as a restriction on the export of hazardous pesticides.

Although "notification" does not give the EPA the power to stop the export of banned or restricted pesticides, the agency developed the procedure under Congressional direction in 1979 to ensure that foreign buyers were at lease informed about the known dangers of pesticides they were receiving.

In the past, the foreign buyer would have no indication that a pesticide was too dangerous to be registered in the United States. Under the "notification" rules, the U.S. exporter is required to send the importer a statement disclosing whether the pesticide is unregistered or whether its registration was canceled. The importer must acknowledge to the EPA that he has received this notification. The EPA then sends this acknowledgment to the State Department, which forwards the information to the appropriate official in the importing country.

The EPA is also required to tell foreign governments why it will not register a particular pesticide. The purpose of the " notification" is to help the recipient country decide for itself whether it is willing to take the risks associated with importing a particular chemical. But the pesticide industry succeeded in getting eliminated the requirement that shipments be delayed until the host government responded to the notification. The program has other critical flaws:

· The EPA does not always adequately explain to the foreign government why it restricted or banned a pesticide.

· Notifications are usually sent to local pesticide importers (such as those in Central America selling to Castle & Cooke). The pesticide importer is hardly likely to be interested in telling farmers of the product's potential dangers. Moreover, local agriculture officials are often intimately connected to the pesticide industry. "The people who use pesticides, the people who import pesticides, and the people who 'regulate' pesticides are the same people," says Dr. Harold Hubbard of the Pan American Health Organization. "It's a tight little group in each country."

· The pesticide industry has ingenious ways of getting around the notification procedure. A multinational executive told Frances Miley, one of the EPA officials responsible for the new regulation, that companies will simply ship their pesticides to subsidiaries in intermediary countries, such as Switzerland, and then re-export them. Switzerland, which uses almost no pesticides, will then end up with piles of useless notifications.

· A notice is required only with the first shipment of any particular chemical sent to a country within a calendar year. Thus the recipient government is not alerted as to how much of a dangerous substance it will be getting - a crucial factor in deciding whether to ban it.

· There is no enforcement mechanism. "If the companies don't do it," says Miley, "there is no penalty."

In spite of these problems, the 1979 notification provisions took a significant step forward in at least beginning to regulate the flow of hazardous pesticides overseas. However, even this tentative move may not survive the antiregulatory drive mounted by the Reagan administration.

Washington's nightmares about the pesticide time bomb

IF ANY SINGLE factor will spur the to regulate pesticide dumping, it will be concern over its harmful effects on U.S. foreign policy. The prospect of "Made in U.S.A." chemical time bombs ticking away around the globe alarms the State Department. The publicity surrounding past incidents, especially the Phosvel-caused deaths of Egyptian farmers and at least a thousand water buffalo in 1971, and the malathion poisonings of hundreds of Pakistanis in 1976, embarrassed Washington, to say the least.

The State Department held a special conference in 1979 to discuss the issue, inviting representatives from Latin America, Asia and Africa.

EPA officials unveiled their new notification regulations at this conference. Environmentalists led by Jacob Scherr of the Natural Resources Defense Council argued forcefully for an end to the unhindered export of hazardous pesticides. Corporate spokespersons such as Frederick Rarig of Rohm & Haas complained about "overlapping governmental authorities . . . with myriads of regulations imposed by diverse jurisdictions." Third world representatives like Samuel Gitonga of Kenya declared that "our regulations of pesticides are in the infant stage." Delegates from several underdeveloped countries described pesticide horror stories, including deaths, environmental destruction, and deceptive corporate sales techniques.

Everyone agreed there was a serious problem, but a conference hosted by the State Department could not arrive at a solution - that would require bucking the powerful chemical corporations. Instead the pro forma conclusion recommended "further study and better international cooperation." Perhaps the most significant aspect of the conference was that it took place at all. No one could now doubt that the State Department was worried over the chaotic export trade in hazardous pesticides.

The White House inter-agency task force

HE WHITE HOUSE, meanwhile, inched its way toward 1 involvement in the pesticide dumping controversy. In 1979, President Carter created an inter-agency Hazardous Substances Export Policy Task Force to prepare guidelines governing the export of hazardous goods - including pesticides, drugs, contraceptives, and Tris-treated baby clothes.

A few members of the task force - from the Council on Environmental Quality, the State Department, and the EPA - urged strong regulations to curb the surge of hazardous exports. On the other side, however, the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture, and Treasury and the Eximbank supported the pro-export positions of the chemical company lobbyists.

"The Commerce Department is leading the retreat," said Ed Cohen, White House counsel for the task force. Commerce Department representatives saw the task force as an unnecessary hindrance to U.S. competitiveness in export markets. The Commerce Department's yearly pesticide export statistics obfuscate information essential to the task force. From these statistics it is impossible to distinguish between banned and approved pesticides.

Because of its deep internal divisions, the task force's final recommendations were a lopsided compromise reflecting the disagreements among the 16 executive departments and agencies involved.

The task force's major preoccupation appeared to be damage the United States may suffer if its image gets tainted with disasters linked to U.S. pesticide exports. "If the United States does not exercise special vigilance over the export of certain extremely hazardous banned or significantly restricted products which represent a substantial threat to human health or safety or the environment," the task force's final report noted, "our economic and diplomatic ties with other countries could be jeopardized. Citizens and governments of foreign countries receiving these products directly, or being adversely affected indirectly as innocent bystanders may develop increasingly hostile attitudes toward this country and its products."

Specifically excluded from this warning and from policy recommendations, however, were the export of hazardous production facilities, or their financing by government or government-related credit institutions such as the Eximbank, OPIC, or the World Bank.

The task force also recommended more stringent notification requirements. A government would not only have to be notified before being sent a pesticide unregistered or severely restricted in the United States- it would have to make a specific request for the product. Although an improvement over the government's "hands off" approach to hazardous pesticide exports, the task force plan was fatally flawed. Most third world countries do not have facilities for testing pesticides or evaluating their hazards. The third world governments which must make pesticide decisions are often more responsive to the needs of the multinational corporations than the welfare of their own people. Bribery, already widespread, could increase as companies tried to encourage foreign countries to purchase banned products that they could no longer sell on the home market.

In contrast to the White House task force, Ralph Nader's Health Research Group advocated automatically outlawing the export of any substance banned or restricted as too dangerous for use in the United States. A company or nation would then have to petition the EPA to prove that special circumstances in the receiving country necessitate an exception.

Despite its inadequacies, the task force's recommendations were a strong symbolic step in the right direction when they were enacted into law by President Carter in his "Executive Order on Federal Policy Regarding the Export of Banned or Significantly Restricted Substances," issued five days before he left office in January 1981. Several weeks later, however, President Reagan swept away the task force's work by rescinding the executive order in its entirety.

Capital Hill attempts to stop "dumping"

LATE IN 1978, Congress held hearing on the export of banned products, including pesticides, but passed no laws.

Early in 1980 and again in 1981, Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Maryland) introduced a bill which would significantly restrict the export of all hazardous products. The Barnes bill would force exporters to obtain a government license before shipping their products overseas. A license would depend on these conditions being met:

· The importing country's government would have to approve and request the product.

· The U.S. government would have to determine that the potential benefits of the export outweigh the risks.

· The product would have to adhere to U.S. labeling requirements and contain instructions the importing country's people could use.

· Perhaps more significant, ingredients of banned products could not be exported to formulate those banned products overseas.

Barnes held committee hearings on his bill in mid-1980, but passage seems unlikely, given the strong pro-export mood of the 86th Congress. Nevertheless, the Barnes bill seems to lay the legislative groundwork for regulation of hazardous exports by the U.S. Congress - regulation that will only be possible when growing citizen activism challenges the chemical industry.