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Organic : Report Calls for Reform of Pesticide Regulations

July 08, 1993|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

". . . Although the data were weak, the committee estimated that for some children (farm chemical residues in foods) could be sufficiently high to produce symptoms of acute organophosphate pesticide poisoning."

--Excerpt from "Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children," authored by the National Research Council.

No other sentence in the study released last week by the National Academy of Sciences comes closer to stating that the current federal system to review, regulate and use pesticides has failed to protect the public, particularly the young.

Most of the 389-page report is shrouded in caution and written with a careful hand, but it is clear the authors believe that the government's pesticides regulations are in need of reform.

"That one sentence is the strongest statement in a prestigious report," says Charles Benbrook, principal of Benbrook Consulting Services in Washington and a former director of the NAS' Board on Agriculture. "It says, in fact, that contemporary use of pesticides is harming some people. That is a significant statement and it took (the authors) a lot of courage to make it."

For years, Benbrook says, the chemical and food industries have been arguing that legal farm chemical usage has not harmed anyone. He concedes that it was difficult for environmentalists to refute that contention.

Surprisingly, however, representatives of food and chemical interests are not only accepting the NAS report but pledging to cooperate with the Clinton Administration in reducing pesticide usage through adoption of safer methods.

"If scientific and regulatory procedures need to be changed to afford children greater protection, (then) we will be at the forefront in helping to develop the changes and make them work," says John R. Cady, president of the National Food Processors Assn. in Washington.

Thomas E. Stenzel, president of the International Food Information Council sounds a similar note: "There is perhaps nothing more important to food producers than children's nutrition and health. Scientists and policy makers should work together to make any needed changes to improve regulatory practices affecting public health."

The food industry's soft-spoken response to the NAS report was "remarkable," says Lawrie Mott, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a San Francisco-based environmental advocacy group. "It doesn't work any more for them to say that residues in food are not a problem because there is too much evidence indicating that pesticides in food are a serious problem."

One of the authors of the pesticides and children study also expresses surprise at the relatively mild response to the NAS report in recent days.

"The initial attention to the report has been deliberative, not inflammatory," says Donald R. Mattison, dean of the Graduate School of Health at the University of Pittsburgh and vice-chair of the committee that compiled the NAS report. "There has been an understanding that what we are talking about is moving forward with the regulatory process. This is a change that couldn't exist (in the political climate of) a decade ago. Our report draws together issues that need to be (addressed)."

There have been some dissenters who claim too much is being read into a lengthy study that, in essence, calls for yet more studies to better learn about children's diets and their resulting pesticide exposure.

"This report may be viewed as an indictment of the safety of the food supply and that is inappropriate," says Carl K. Winter, a UC Davis toxicologist and director of the school's FoodSafe program. "At no point does the NAS report say, 'reduce pesticide use.' That is more of a (political) issue than a (scientific) issue."

Winter says that current science is uncertain when it comes to determining the actual threat posed to infants, children or adults from minuscule amounts of pesticide residue in food. For instance, the NAS report says that current residue data is of "limited value.

"There will always be uncertainty and we will always be able to take issue with the adequacy of the data (about exposure to chemical residues in food). I don't expect that to change even as the data improves.

"The health benefits of a diet with liberal amounts of fruits and vegetables far outweighs the theoretical risk of cancer from residues," he continues. "The NAS report sends a strong message to the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress that if we are going to take residues in the food supply seriously then we need to make alterations in the way we assess these risks (because the information on the subject now is inadequate)."

Agricultural consultant Benbrook, however, says the government does not need to have perfect science in order to make decisions or regulations involving public health.

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