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Dispelling myths swirling around pesticides

It's kind of interesting to note the items you come across on the Internet while searching for other things.

For instance, while doing research on pesticides I ran across an article by John Stossel of “20/20” TV fame. You might know Stossel — he's the in-your-face reporter who has a way of boiling down controversies into their essential ingredients and then confronting the interviewee with simple straight talk and direct questions. He's also a New York Times best-selling author who has a popular book out called “Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity.”

It was the excerpts from the book that I found fascinating, especially the segment about myths dealing with pesticides. In one portion there's an interview with Dr. Bruce Ames, who is a UC Berkeley professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Center. This seemed rather odd to me because most people attending this liberal enclave are perceived to be staunch environmentalists who would like nothing better than to see pesticides banished entirely from Mother Earth.

Anyway, Ames, who invented the test that first frightened people in the 1970s when he raised alarms by revealing there were carcinogens in hair dye, and in the flame retardants in children's pajamas, was instrumental in getting these chemicals removed from store shelves. The Ames Test proved successful, and is one of the standards used today to discover if a substance is carcinogenic.

Stossel bluntly asked him: “Do pesticides in food cause cancer and other diseases?” His response: “Practically everything in the supermarket, if you really look at it at the parts per billion level, would have carcinogens. Vegetables are good for you, yet vegetables make toxic chemicals to keep off insects, so every vegetable is 5 percent of its weight in toxic chemicals. These are nature's pesticides. Celery, alfalfa sprouts, and mushrooms are just chock-full of carcinogens.”

The dialogue then segued into whether organic produce is healthier than conventional produce, which quickly got a resounding “no” from the Berkeley scientist.

“Absolutely not, because the amount of manmade pesticide residues people are eating are actually trivial and very, very tiny amounts. We get more carcinogens in a cup of coffee than we do in all the pesticide residues you eat in a day.”

To put the risk into perspective, Ames and his staff analyzed the results of every cancer test done on rats and mice. By comparing the dose that gave the rodents cancer to the typical exposure people get, they came up with a ranking of the danger. Pesticides such as DDT and EDB came out much lower than herb tea, peanut butter, alcohol, and mushrooms.

The mention of DDT got me thinking about another book, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, which unleashed a firestorm of criticism in 1962 against DDT and chemicals in general. But it's a myth that DDT causes cancer. Inhabitants of poor countries have paid the price for this falsehood that has been amplified by media hysteria that painted DDT as the “Killer Chemical.”

DDT is effective against malaria. The World Health Organization has recommended wider use of it to battle the deadly disease. In Uganda alone, malaria is killing as many as a million people a year, according to Ugandan Health Minister Jim Muhwezi. Think of it: millions are dying because the media gets it wrong.

Stossel points out that in the 1950s tons of DDT were sprayed indiscriminately in the United States. Despite the overuse, there was no surge in cancer or any other human injury. Scientists found no evidence that spraying DDT seriously hurt people. It did cause some harm: It threatened bird populations by thinning the shells of their eggs. But if sprayed on the walls of an African hut, a small amount will keep mosquitoes at bay for six months. That translates into a powerful malaria fighter. But today DDT is not funded by the U.S. to fight malaria and is rarely used because environmentalists' demonization of it causes others to avoid it.

That frustrates Dr. Amir Attaran, who researched the issue at Harvard University and gave this quote to Stossel: “If it's DDT, it must be awful. And that's fine if you're a rich white environmentalist. It's not so fine if you're a poor black kid who is about to lose his life from malaria.”

I have a few frustrations and thoughts of my own about pesticide myths.

Concerning the light brown apple moth that is currently inflicting damage to more than 250 varieties on plants throughout California, at a cost in the millions, the aerial spraying of the chemical pheromone simply confuses male moths to keep them from locating a mate, thereby eliminating their ability to reproduce. Besides federal and California environmental protection agencies, its usage has also been endorsed by the California Certified Organic Farmers group, one of the oldest and largest organic certification agencies in North America. Pheromones are simply not a threat to humans.

On the subject of West Nile virus, the EPA has estimated the exposure and risks to both adults and children posed by ultra-low volume applications of the insecticides malathion and naled are minimal to human health and the environment. For all scenarios considered, exposures ranged from 100 to 10,000 times below an amount of pesticide that might pose a health concern.

I believe the following quote by Allen James, president of RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment), hits the nail on the head: “The reality is that the risk posed by West Nile virus is much greater than any risk associated with mosquito-control pesticides. The risks associated with proper use of pesticides are so low one cannot document any lasting effects. There are no known deaths from spraying these products. The same cannot be said for West Nile virus, which has affected more than 13,000 people and killed more than 500 in the U.S. since 2002.”

Returning to Stossel's book, “Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity,” it is worth a read. It's guaranteed to open your eyes to the many half-truths, untruths and rumors that have become ingrained as fact in our culture. It also exposes and dispels many of the crusades spearheaded by environmentalist groups while concurrently blaming the media for getting caught up in the moment and failing to rely on sound science to balance their reporting.

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