20. Legalizing Carcinogens in Our Food

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Source: IN THESE TIMES, Date: 3/21/94, Title: “Risky Business: A Proposed EPA reform may leave Americans even more exposed to the dangers of pesticides,” Author: William K. Burke

SSU Censored Researcher: Paul Giusto

SYNOPSIS: The only U.S. law that entitles Americans to a carcinogen­-free food supply is being threatened by the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress.

The law is known as the Delaney Clause after Rep. James Delaney (D-NY) who insisted in 1958 that the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act include language that prohibits cancer-causing chemicals in

America’s processed food. While the law has threatened the multi­billion-dollar pesticide industry during the past 36 years, it has rarely hampered it.

Under Delaney, if a pesticide is shown to be a carcinogen, the gov­ernment must ban it from use in all processed foods. And while it is quite specific, the pesticide industry (with the government’s help) had found ways around the law until 1992 when the Natural Resources Defense Council won a federal lawsuit that compelled the EPA to begin enforcing Delaney.

To avoid doing this, and to appease the chemical industry, the Clinton EPA proposed a legislative reform package that would replace Delaney with a system known as “risk assessment.” Under this system, the government weighs the “risks” posed by a given pesticide against the chemical’s “benefits.” In this case, a risk is negligible if only one in a million consumers develop cancer from a pesticide-­treated food.

Critics point out that Americans already consume the residues of more than 300 EPA-registered pes­ticides-about 70 of which are known to cause cancer. Yet the pro­posed risk-assessment process falsely assumes that ill effects from exposure to a single toxin from a single source can be precisely calcu­lated and then regulated. But this risk assessment process ignores the fact that causes of cancer can’t be pinpointed that exactly. A typical American already runs a one-in-­four risk of cancer.

Jay Feldman, of the National Coalition Against Misuse of Pesticides, points out that “Delaney is the building block to a sound public policy to prevent cancer.” In fact, Feldman argues that the need for stringent restric­tion of cancer-causing agents has never been greater.

Nonetheless, environmentalists warn that once the Delaney Clause becomes history, which some expect to happen in 1995, the right of U.S. agribusiness to spread cancer will be secured. Congress and the EPA will be left to squabble over how many cancer deaths are too many.

Environmental writer William K. Burke concludes that “Without strong, unequivocal laws to guide it, the EPA has tended to negotiate with polluters rather than regulate their pollution. By proposing to replace the Delaney Clause with the dubious science of risk assess­ment, the Clinton EPA risks repeating that sorry history.”

When the 103rd Congress adjourned on October 8, 1994, there already were two bills in Congress that would eliminate the Delaney Clause.

COMMENTS: Environmental writer William Burke reports, “Efforts to repeal the Delaney Clause and promote the `risk assessment’ approach to regulating environmental hazards were not heavily covered last year. The Washington Post has run editorials favoring the replacement of strict consumer protection laws like Delaney with risk assessment.”

One of the problems in per­suading editors to cover the issue, Burke said, is “that the risk assess­ment story lacks a sexy hook until you understand some of the com­plexities behind the concept. Over the last seven years freelancing I have learned that there is no better way to make an assignment editor’s eyes glaze over and ears slam shut than to explain to him or her the complexities of environmental policy.

“The fact is that the promotion of risk assessment is an attempt by corporations addicted to pollution to use false science to promote poli­cies that are bad for the nation’s long-term economic and physical health. But the idea of balancing `risks versus benefits’ sound pseudo­scientific enough to pass through a political system ruled by centrists and right wingers who think prag­matism means fulfilling the desires of the most powerful lobbyists.

“One in four Americans will die prematurely from cancer. Yet few Americans know that the industry and government scientists who assure them their food supply is safe have no idea how the 70 car­cinogenic pesticides legally applied to America’s food interact. The effects of these combined expo­sures are difficult if not impossible to study, therefore the risks of such combined exposures are simply ignored in the regulatory process. As a result most mass media reports on pesticides focus on the risk from one pesticide in one use. So we get stories about pesticides being regu­lated because they cause cancer in a few rats. This lack of depth of coverage provides grist for the mills of the writers leading the current anti-environmental charge. It also prevents any serious discussion of what it means to our country to have a food supply system addicted to pesticides.”

Burke charges that the grocers, food production lobbyists and pes­ticide companies that are paying for the effort to kill the Delaney Clause in Congress will all directly benefit if the law is changed.

Burke concludes, “If the Delaney Clause is overturned it will not rep­resent a-step towards an updated and sensible pesticide policy, which seems to be how the mainstream press intends to help sell risk assess­ment. Rather the end of Delaney will be one more marker that America’s food supply has become one of history’s great chemistry experiments.”