Chapter four - The pesticide boomerang
PESTICIDE POLLUTION does not respect national borders. As one of
the world's largest food importers, we in the United States are not escaping
hazardous chemicals simply by banning them at home. (See Table Two.)
Approximately IO percent of our imported food contains illegal
levels of pesticides, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
But that IO percent is deceptive. The FDA's most commonly used analytical method
does not even check for 70 percent of the almost 900 food tolerances for
cancer-causing pesticides. (A tolerance is the amount of a pesticide allowed in
any particular food produce.)
In addition, the FDA frequently finds mysterious, unknown
chemicals in imported foods. Government investigators believe that some of these
fugitive chemicals come from the millions of pounds of "unregistered" pesticides
the EPA allows U.S. manufacturers to export without divulging any information
about their chemical makeup or their effects on people or the environment.
Knowing how little we know, we suspect these statistics from the
General Accounting Office represent only the tip of the iceberg:
· Over 15 percent of the beans and 13 percent of the peppers
imported from Mexico, during one recent period, were found to violate FDA
pesticide residue standards.
· Nearly half the imported green coffee beans contain levels
(from traces to illegal residues) of pesticides that are banned in the United
States. (See Table Three.)
· Freshly cut flowers flown in from Colombia caused a rash
of organophosphate poisonings among American florists.
· Imported beef from Central America often contains
pesticide contamination. The GAO has estimated that 14 percent of all U.S. meat
is now contaminated with illegal residues, and imports make a significant
contribution to that total.
The pesticide residue problem has escalated to such a level that
all beef imports from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala have been halted by the
USDA. Agricultural practices in those countries, including heavy pesticide use
on crops next to cattle-grazing land, have backfired on ranchers raising beef
for the U.S. market.
Despite the widespread contamination of imported food, FDA
inspectors rarely seize shipments or refuse them entry. Instead, a small sample
is removed for analysis while the rest of the shipment proceeds to the
marketplace . . . and the consumer. The rationale is that perishable food would
spoil if held until the test results were known. But by the time the test
results are available - showing dieldrin or parathion or DDT residues - the food
has already found its way into our stomachs. Recalls are difficult..
During one recent 15-month period, government investigators found
that half of all the imported food identified by the FDA as
pesticide-contaminated was marketed without any penalty to the importers or
warnings to consumers! Even products from importers with repeated violations
were routinely allowed to pass. Some examples:
· USDA officials in Dallas noticed a strong
"insecticide-like smell" in a batch of imported cabbage from an importer with a
record of shipping contaminated products. Despite USDA's complaint, the FDA
allowed the cabbage to go to market. A sample that had been removed for testing
later revealed illegal levels of BHC, the dangerously carcinogenic pesticide
whose registration was cancelled in 1976 at Hooker Chemical's request. But it
was too late to recall the cabbage.
· Peppers from a shipment that was sent on to supermarkets
turned out to have 29 times more pesticide residue than allowed by U.S. law.
In a world of growing food interdependence, we cannot export our
hazards and then forget them. There is no refuge. The mushrooming use of
pesticides in the third world is a daily threat to millions there - and a
growing threat to all consumers here. Therefore we and third world people are
allies in a common effort to halt the production of hazardous pesticides and
contain all pesticide use to safe