by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

The export of banned pesticides from the industrial countries to the Third World is a scandal of global proportions still little covered by the major news media. But now, investigative reporters David Weir and Mark Shapiro have discovered that 50-70% of the chemicals are used not to grow food for the hungry but on luxury crops like coffee and bananas destined for the U.S. and Europe… creating a “circle of poison.”

Dangerous pesticides create the circle of poison by endangering the workers in American chemical plants, injuring Third World workers in the fields where they are used, and, finally returning to us in the food we import.

The U.S. is one of the world’s top importers of food and at least 10 per cent of our imported food is officially estimated to be contaminated. Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) most commonly used test fails to measure 70 per cent of the almost 900 food tolerances for cancer ­causing chemicals. (A tolerance is the amount of a pesticide allowed in any particular food product.)

Although the FDA is supposed to be protecting us from such hazards, during one fifteen-month period half of all imported food identified by the FDA as contaminated was marketed without warning to consumers nor with any penalty to the importers. For example, nearly half the imported coffee beans during one period were found to contain levels of pesticides banned in the U.S. and the General Accounting Office has estimated that 14 per cent of all U.S. meat is now contaminated with illegal residues. In fact, the pesticide residue problem has reached a level where all beef imports from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala have been halted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Despite widespread contamination of imported food, FDA inspectors rarely seize or refuse shipments. Instead, a small sample is removed for analysis while the rest of the shipment proceeds to the marketplace. By the time the test results are known, the food has already been consumed.

At least 25 percent of the U.S. pesticide exports are products that are banned, heavily restricted, or have never been registered for use here. Many have not been independently evaluated and others, like DDT, are familiar poisons, widely known to cause cancer, birth defects and genetic mutations. Yet the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act explicitly states that banned or unregistered pesticides are legal for export.

The pesticide industry now produces more than one pound of poison for every Person on earth … and, according to the World Health Organization, someone in the underdeveloped countries is poisoned by pesticides every minute. But the majority of people in bath the industrial nations and the Third World are victims of the circle of poison. The lack of media coverage over this issue qualifies this story for nomination as one of the “best censored” stories of 1980.


The Nation, Nov. 15, 1980, “The Circle of Poison,” by David Weir and Mark Shapiro.