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Time to Heed Consumer Concerns

July 16, 1989

California must take stronger action to assure that its food supply is safe from pesticides that can cause cancer and other illnesses. The Legislature may be on the verge of passing a measure that purports to provide that protection but ignores critical problems. The lawmakers should be talking more about phasing out carcinogenic pesticides and phasing in pest control measures that reduce reliance on harmful chemicals. Instead, they seem intent on taking half-measures to head off a potential ballot initiative. Failing to heed consumer concerns now could be a big mistake and lead to harsher controls enacted by the voters.

The Assembly has just passed AB 2161, sponsored by Assemblyman Bruce Bronzan (D-Fresno). It would establish a long-overdue testing program for pesticide residues in processed foods, expand monitoring of raw agricultural products and improve protection for infants and toddlers who can tolerate less exposure to some pesticides than adults can.

Bronzan's bill is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. It gives the agricultural and chemical industries too much control over pesticide regulation and takes too little action to reduce pesticide use. Critics like Ralph Lightstone of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation point out, for example, that there is already a state law requiring a plan for monitoring processed food. The Department of Health Services "prepared the plan, which was apparently not welcomed by some industry groups," says Lightstone. "It was never formally released, and has been gathering dust in the governor's office for the past four years."

More can and must be done. Based on extensive animal testing, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already identified, but not acted against, 13 pesticides that either clearly cause cancer in humans or probably do so. These pesticides include alachlor, a weed-killer used on beans and corn, and captan, a fungicide used on fruits and vegetables. Federal indecisiveness should not stop California, which has long had higher standards. AB 417, proposed by Assemblyman Lloyd Connelly (D-Sacramento) would phase out these chemicals over a 5-to-8-year period. The acutely hazardous pesticide aldicarb, used on watermelons and cucumbers, would also be phased out.

Connelly's bill, which the Legislature so far has ignored, also calls for more research into alternative pest-control methods. It also would transfer decisions about health impacts of pesticides from the state Department of Food and Agriculture to the health department.

Environmental groups support Connelly's bill; growers and chemical manufacturers support Bronzan's bill. The environmentalists and farm-worker attorneys are considering a pesticide-safety ballot initiative along the lines of Connelly's bill. In a fair fight--one not fought with tons of money and simplistic slogans--odds are that the same voters who approved the insurance initiative could be persuaded to go for tighter pesticide controls.

Once again the Legislature's credibility and concern for public interest is at stake. It should not try cosmetic touches but should have an open and thorough dialogue about real public concerns. It probably won't. And once again lawmaking may slip out of lawmakers' hands.

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