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Annie Spiegelman

Annie Spiegelman

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A Green New Year's Resolution: Quit the Pesticide Man

Posted: 01/ 5/11 11:35 AM ET

Here in the Bay Area where I live, according to the EPA, all of our creeks are contaminated with significant levels of pesticides, especially diazinon, an insecticide that was banned for home use 10 years ago because of its toxicity to mammals. If a bunch of compost-loving, Prius-driving tree-huggers and plastic bag-haters can't keep their waterways clean, it's frightening to think what's happening in other parts of the country. It's not only the farmers and industry who are doing the polluting; home gardeners are doing their fair share as well. That's because we've all been marketed to death to over-fertilize with chemicals that make our flowers bloom unnaturally big. Once our innocent plants are done with their crack-feeding, they become exhausted and vulnerable to diseases and pest infestations. So, we buy more poisonous pesticides and the toxic cycle continues. Enough with the chemicals before we all end up in the wacky shack! All you need in your garden is compost, compost, compost. And a top layer of mulch. Then walk away. Let the billions of invisible soil microbes, who are willing to feed your plants and gobble up pests for free, 24/7, rain or shine, do the rest of the work for you. You just sit there sipping your organic, Fair-Trade, shade-grown tea and take all the credit for your beautiful, naturally sustaining and flourishing ecosystem. Welcome to my world, slackers!

2011 is the year to get your garden into rehab. Get with the program already! Quit dawdling. You know you want to. The 2008 Environmental Lawn and Garden Survey asked a representative sample of U.S. households, In your opinion, how important is it that residential, commercial, and municipal lawns and landscapes be maintained in an environmentally friendly way? Eighty-nine percent of all U.S. households responded that this is important. If we all want to live long and healthy lives we need to learn to cherish our soil. Soil is the most biologically productive ecosystem on the planet. It's what sustains life on our planet yet we neglect and abuse it. We'd be toast without it. We can't survive with air and water (and the internet) alone. Entire civilizations have been lost for taking their soil for granted.

I decided to contact Pesticide Action Network (Panna.org) to shed a little light upon the urgency of breaking up with the pesticide man.(I know. He's rich and suave and powerful. But he doesn't love you. He's playing you like a second-rate fiddle, girl. Wake-up!) This group of geeky scientists and soil activists have been researching and implementing pesticide policy globally since the early 80's. The group educates homeowners, farmers and policymakers on the dangers of the ubiquitous use of pesticides, reminding us that these chemicals don't respect borders. They're traded as commodities, sprayed on foods that get shipped around the world, and in some cases, last long enough in the environment to float thousands of miles on wind and water currents. How pesticides are used in the U.S. matters in the Canadian Arctic; how pesticides are used in Brazil matters in U.S. grocery stores.

Kristin Schafer is a Senior Policy Analyst at the San Francisco office, one of five network hubs around the world tackling the pesticide problem. She monitors what's going on in the policy world related to pesticides -- tracking progress, setbacks and opportunities to get state and national policymakers to understand and focus on more environmentally sound solutions. Before joining PAN in 1996, Kristin worked for the World Resources Institute's Sustainable Agriculture program, as a communications specialist for the U.S. EPA, and as an agro-forestry extension officer with the Peace Corps in Kenya. I talked to Kristin Schafer about her work and why her organization would like us to know just how many pesticides are lurking in or on every piece of fruit we eat, with their new iphone App called 'What's on my Food?'

Recent scientific studies show that the weedkiller atrazine changes the sex of male frogs. The pesticide methyl iodide, which is a known neurotoxin (nerve poison), will now be legal to fumigate onto California strawberry fields. American beekeepers believe the pesticide clothianidin, with a soil half-life of up to 19 years in heavy soils, is taking away their livelihoods. The latest President's Cancer Panel report on carcinogens in our environment is especially gloomy. Should we all just go hide under the covers?

No. The more we know, the smarter choices we can all make. For the first time ever, the President's Cancer Panel analyzed the contribution carcinogens in our environment play in causing cancer. The Bush-appointed cancer scientists on the Panel found that the importance of these chemicals has been dramatically underestimated. They were so concerned that they actually recommended President Obama do something: get toxic chemicals that cause cancer out of our food, water and air. Since the White House seemed to be ignoring this powerful recommendation, we brought them a petition last month -- signed by thousands of our supporters across the country -- asking the president to pay attention to his cancer scientists. We'll be following up with partner groups to keep the pressure on. The report can be found here.

What is new in the State of the Evidence Report that we're all too chicken to read?

This is an amazing contribution from the Breast Cancer Fund.This is their 6th version of the report, and each time they review the latest science on how chemicals are linked to breast cancer. Over the years, the evidence just keeps getting stronger. This is in part because scientists are now looking more carefully at the linkages, and in part because we have a better understanding of how exposure to very low levels of chemicals early in life (at particular moments from fetal development through puberty) can cause health problems -- including breast cancer -- many years later.

This edition of the report also looks carefully at what the science says about exposure to multiple chemicals -- how do these chemicals interact in our bodies? Can they become more harmful? This is an important issue to explore, because unfortunately EPA pretty much evaluates and regulates chemicals one-by-one, but this isn't how we're exposed to things out here in the real world.

If people care about this issue, I'd recommend they take a deep breath and dive in to check out the Breast Cancer Fund report for themselves. The authors have done a great job translating complex science for us non-scientists. They also have plenty of recommendations for what policy changes are needed to move us toward real cancer prevention, and what personal choices people can make to protect themselves. Not light reading, but worth the effort. http://www.breastcancerfund.org/media/press-releases/soe-2010.html

2010-12-08-breastcancerriskscauses.JPG.jpeg

How can consumers, as well as corporations, REALLY help in the fight against breast cancer without just pink-washing; selling more pink plastic bands and ribbons from China or changing a sugary/fatty food item's packaging to pretty-in-pink?

We're in desperate need of a national cancer prevention plan that tackles cancer-causing chemicals as part of the problem, and finds ways to get them out of our food, water and air -- and sooner rather than later. People can join efforts to press for this, through PAN or our partners at Breast Cancer Fund and Breast Cancer Action -- both of these groups focus on what can be done to prevent cancer, rather than focusing only on the "race to cure" the disease. There's a national safe cosmetics campaign working to get carcinogens and other dangerous chemicals out of cosmetics -- many companies have already signed a pledge to do this.

Also on the personal choices side: choosing organic foods when you can. This not only protects individuals and their families from exposure to chemicals as food residues, it also protects families in rural areas and workers in agricultural fields. It also sends an important signal to farmers that people want chemical-free food, and are willing to pay a little extra for it. Of course, growing your own organic veggies as recommended by the Dirt Diva is another great option!

How are pesticides tested for safety? I know they're tested for efficacy. We keep hearing that only 200 'chemicals' on the US market have been evaluated by the EPA and it's not clear what the actual procedure is for pesticides.

This is a common point of confusion. When people talk about the 80,000 chemicals in commerce that have never been evaluated, they're talking about industrial chemicals -- the stuff that's used to make everyday products like toys, cosmetics, carpets, etc etc.

For pesticides, there actually is a system in place for safety testing. For new products, chemicals have to submit scientific studies (mostly testing rodents) that are reviewed by EPA before a chemical is registered for use. Older products that are already on the market are re-reviewed periodically as new studies are done.

Yes, but isn't it a flawed and outdated system that tests just one chemical?

Unfortunately, the system doesn't work very well. The main problem is that EPA tests for the health effects of one chemical at a time, which is not how we're exposed to pesticides in the real world. As you'll see on www.whatsonmyfood.org, each item on your plate can have residues of many pesticides at a time. A law was passed back in the 1990's that required EPA to consider cumulative impact of pesticides that cause the same kind of health effects, but they haven't done very well at figuring out how to do this. Yet.

There's also the knotty question of how chemicals might interact once they're in our bodies. There are about 17,000 pesticide products out there. Some of these pesticides hang out for quite a while so there's a bit of a brew in there, and chemicals do tend to interact. EPA doesn't even try to get a handle on the potential health impacts of this.


Once a pesticide is banned, usually after it's been unleashed upon us for many years, how long until it's really not sold in stores? I've seen plant nurseries selling 'banned' products for years until the carcinogenic product stocked on the shelves finally sells out.

The EPA review process is breathtakingly slow. When they do find that a pesticide is dangerous, it can take years to take action. The insecticide endosulfan was found to be harmful to humans back in 2002. In June of this year the agency said it will be phased out -- in another 6 years.

And finally, the bulk of the testing is done by the companies that are trying to register (and make money off) the pesticide products. So there's a "fox guarding the henhouse" effect in play as well. These are just a few of the problems with the system set up for safety testing -- for our take on how industry takes advantage of the current system, check out our Undue Influence page: http://www.panna.org/issues/pesticides-profit/undue-influence.


What is 'conditional registration' and who came up with it? That guy is SO fired!

EPA often grants new pesticide products "conditional registration" when studies normally required for registration are missing or when there are ongoing concerns. The registrants are supposed to provide the missing studies as a condition of continued registration. In reality, these studies often don't get done. According to NRDC: "EPA has overused conditional registrations, as they now represent the majority of active registrations. The EPA Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) has over 16,000 pesticide product active registrations (that is, currently registered). Of these, over 11,000 (68%) are conditionally registered."


What can informed individuals do to educate others about carcinogenic chemicals in the environment and in cosmetics? I'm already the 'Debbie-Downer' in my family. It's hard to put a smiley face on it and it's hard to compete with news about the Kardashians or Jersey Shore . . .

Person-to-person conversations are the most powerful education tool of all. When you're concerned, excited or passionate about something and tell your friends and family, they're likely to listen and learn.

There are also some great online resources out there, and the more they're shared, the smarter choices we can all make. The www.whatsonmyfood.org website and iPhone app is something Pesticide Action Network has put together to help people understand the links between pesticides on food and their health. Basically, you can use the tool to check out your favorite foods to find out what chemicals might be on them, and what diseases those chemicals can cause. If things you eat a lot tend to have residues of pesticides linked to cancer or other diseases, that might be a good candidate for buying organic when you can.

The safe cosmetics campaign has a great database as well, where you can search specific products and find out what chemicals are used to make them: www.cosmeticsdatabase.com. Good stuff.

I'm really enjoying your new blog, Ground Truth. You're determined to get us to pay attention, aren't you?

We're very excited about GroundTruth! It's a chance for the experts at PAN -- toxicologists, agroecologists and policy types like myself -- to engage in conversation with the community of folks interested in pesticides, food and health.

We'll be bringing in voices from our international network soon as well. It really is a small world when it comes to food and chemicals -- what happens in Peru or Senegal makes a difference to people in Iowa and Florida. The good news is, people are working on these issues all over the world -- and we've been talking to each other and coordinating our efforts for almost 30 years.

Visit the Ground Truth blog at www.panna.org/blog. Read and weep! Then sign up for Panna action alerts so you can educate your mother-in-law and others who are still out there in their gardens sprayin'.

Call 1-800- Clean-up to find a disposal site for you to quit those dangerous garden chemicals sitting in your shed. (Visit www.ourwaterourworld.org to find safer gardening products.)

Become a member of the Dirt Diva Royal Horticultural Society at www.dirtdiva.com

Kristen at the White House.
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Kristin Schafer trying to get into the White House to save us all from the 17,000 pesticide products on the market . . . Do we really need 17,000? God help us.
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The accompanying chart comes Courtesy of the Breast Cancer Fund