Katrina Highlights Unacceptable Trade-Offs in
(Beyond Pesticides, September 8, 2005) In the wake of the hurricane catastrophe, it becomes painfully clear that the use of the risk-benefit policy used by the U.S. EPA to allow chemical pesticides in our society is failing to protect those in society most vulnerable to harm.
The trade off between the economic benefit of a pesticide and the harmful effects on human health, wildlife, and the environment is not properly assessed nor is it openly acknowledged. The widespread use of pesticides, promoted by the EPA despite the availability of non-toxic alternatives, results in widespread exposure of the general population. Had the EPA taken steps to reduce the widescale use of pesticides and other toxic pollutants, then people who survived the hurricane would not currently be as endangered by the toxic water.
EPA registers and reregisters extremely dangerous chemicals and is charged by the federal government with the role of determining if a pesticide may cause unreasonable harm to human health and the environment. The interpretation of “unreasonable” fluctuates. According to EPA, sometimes it may be allowable that the risk of cancer, for example, is one in a million (risking 280 people nationwide for cancer from exposure to a single pesticide) and other times it may be 1 in a 10,000. Numerous U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reports find that the majority of pesticides in use have not been fully tested and, if they have, still allow for varying degrees of harm to society.
Yet, the harm to society from pesticides is not equal. Pesticide exposure harms certain population groups more than others, a fact that is not accounted for in the registration and reregistration of pesticides. The risks inherent in the mathematical risk calculations fail to take into account the numerous circumstances and realities that make some populations more vulnerable to pesticides than others.
Vulnerable populations include children, farmworkers, their families and their communities, the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, the chemically sensitive, and the indigent. Those inflicted with poverty are the hardest hit with poor nutrition and weakened immune systems, inadequate healthcare, lack of information on pesticide hazards and non-toxic alternatives to pesticides, and contaminated air and water from chemical manufacturing plants and waste sites located in their communities. People of color and of hispanic origin are disproportionately represented in these impoverished areas.
Wood preserving factories are among the biggest contributors to the U.S. EPA's Superfund sites (sites considered too toxic for habitation). These plants manufacture and/or use some of the most toxic and deadly chemicals on the market (see Poison Poles) that can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, heart and organ damage, and are linked to serious human cancer clusters, birth defects, genetic damage and other ill effects. With 31 wood preservative plants, Louisiana is among a handful of states with the highest number. 13 former wood plants in Louisiana alone are designated as superfund sites contaminated with these toxic substances.
Despite the known toxic load in the Gulf region, particularly in Mississippi and Louisiana, those communities and others like them across the country are not considered in the risk assessment calculation that allows the use of dangerous chemicals in society. Instead, when EPA analyzes health and environmental data for chemical registration, it spreads the risk equally across the population with inconsistent exceptions for children and farmworkers. The benefit side of pesticides is more assumed than assessed and rarely documented or made public.
Any public policy touted as adequate must address and protect the most vulnerable members in its society – otherwise the government policy is racist and classist.
In order to protect the most vulnerable people in our society, the EPA risk-benefit pesticide registration system must be replaced by a more fair, equitable, and just system. That system is a health-based approach that accounts for the most vulnerable in society and protects against the worst-case scenario of exposure. The standard embraced by the government should be the same standard that most parents embrace for their children: a zero tolerance for harm.
For concrete analysis and recommendations on the risk-benefit trade off in the EPA pesticide registration system, see Unnecessary Risks: The Benefit Side of the Pesticide Risk-Benefit Equation and Pesticides and You: Zero Tolerance for Harm vs. the Hazards of Risk Assessment and Beyond Pesticides EPA comments page.
The staff of Beyond Pesticides extends our heartfelt thoughts and well wishes of support to each of its members, friends and partners in the areas affected by the hurricane. We also thank our friends who are helping with the relief efforts.