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Perspectives On Proposition 128 : Is It Practical and Forward-Looking, or Is It the Big Green Con Job : It makes dishonest assumptions about pesticides in pursuit of goals that are political, not environmental.

October 27, 1990|BENJAMIN ZYCHER | Benjamin Zycher is an economist in Agoura Hills and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute in Washington. and

If a 100 m.p.h. gale can be expected to kill 1,000 people, then a 10 m.p.h. breeze will kill 100 people. If you believe that, then you have adopted the logic underlying the proposed Environmental Protection Act of 1990, or Big Green, a.k.a. Proposition 128. Voters who care about environmental quality can vote against this monstrosity with clear consciences, for it would result in more cancers, greater poverty and greater toxicity.

Proposition 128 deals with a number of issues, but its central premise is that it will remove "cancer-causing" chemicals and pesticides from agricultural use.

But precisely what does "cancer-causing" mean? Under Proposition 128, it means two things: First, any pesticide shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, typically rodents, is to be banned, regardless of the size of the dose. These tests, conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency or the Food and Drug Administration, typically involve doses tens of thousands of times (or more) higher than allowable or even conceivable for humans. Such "studies" then extrapolate backward under the assumption that the "cancer-causing" attributes of the chemicals are simply proportional to the dose. Nothing could be further from the truth. The chemicals now in use have been shown to cause no harm to animals at levels up to 10,000 times the allowable human exposure. Thus, the studies are inconsistent with the basic rule of toxicology: "The dose makes the poison."

Second, Proposition 128 would ban "anything contributing to a risk of cancer in the exposed population which exceeds the rate of one in a million, utilizing the most conservative risk assessment model." Now, virtually any biologist will agree that one in a million, biologically, equals zero risk, hardly an appropriate policy goal. And the "most conservative risk assessment model" assumes exposures tens or hundreds of thousands of times higher than is actually the case with pesticide residues.

That is why former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop--not known as an apologist for industry--strongly opposes Proposition 128, arguing: "Our food supply . . . contains one-quarter of 1% of (the chemical residues) you could eat every day for your entire life and be perfectly safe." Dr. Stanford Miller, dean of the graduate school of biomedical science at the University of Texas Health Science Center, states: "The biological risk of pesticide residue to consumers is effectively zero."

Since California produces about half of all fresh fruit and vegetables consumed in the United States, it would be no trick at all for Proposition 128 to raise fruit and vegetable prices by 30%. The inevitable result would be a reduction in the consumption of fruit and vegetables, precisely the opposite of cancer-conscious dietary habits. The National Research Council concluded in 1989 that a central approach to reduction of cancer risks and other chronic diseases is an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption. The council also concluded that such benefits far outweigh the infinitesimal risks of the chemicals used in their production.

And what about natural carcinogens that are reduced by chemical use? Sandra Archibald of the Stanford University Food Research Institute and Carl Winter of UC Riverside point out that "elimination of specific fungicides . . . could decrease the safety of the food supply by allowing the production of greater levels of fungal carcinogens, which are perhaps the most potent carcinogens in nature."

Proposition 128 is a classic example of the kind of mischief that looms large when voters are asked to make yes/no decisions on complex issues. That is why the Founding Fathers feared direct democracy and the manipulation of popular passions by private interests. The proponents of this measure have their own interests at stake, and so are hardly impartial observers.

This is the latest attempt by the political left to emasculate the private sector and expand the coercive authority of government. The adverse effects of Proposition 128 are of little interest to its proponents, who care not one whit about the environment or any other lofty ideal.

Ask why the proponents of Proposition 128 are using wildly distorted toxicological studies as a political tool. Ask why they claim that only 20 pesticides will be banned; if so, why the fuss? The political pressures facing the environmental czar would force a much broader activism, given the scope for new lawsuits by the environmental lobby, whose budgets and power are determined by their ability to threaten and file such suits.

Indeed, ask why Proposition 128 provides for the election of an environmental czar. Clearly, the special interests favoring the proposition would like to expand their own political power. In short, the nickname of Proposition 128, Big Green, is a misnomer; let's replace it with "Big Con."

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