At least once a year, it seems, Americans are hit by a carpet bomb attack orchestrated by environmental groups and the media. The theme: Our food supply is killing us because of pesticides used by greedy corporations and chemical companies.
Anyone who denies it is accused of being a dupe of industry. But now a counter-attack has been launched by the highly influential and independent National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
Far from posing the clear and present danger that the environmental groups say they do, the NRC says that the synthetic chemicals that prove carcinogenic in large-dose rodent testing are greatly outnumbered by natural chemicals which do the same thing.
"You mean I might be out of a job soon? Sniff."
"While some chemicals in the diet do have the ability to cause cancer, they appear to be a threat only when they are present in foods that form an unusually large part of the diet," said Ronald Estabrook, chairman of the NRC committee.
What really counts, the report says, is not those things we unknowingly take into our bodies in minuscule quantities, but rather foods that we intentionally ingest in massive doses: fats, calories, and alcohol.
While the report specifically looked at cancer, it certainly bears noting that the worst thing about these ingredients is their ability to induce death not from cancer but from obesity, heart disease, and liver damage. Further, another dietary component, fiber, has been strongly tied to a reduced incidence of cancer and heart disease.
In other words, if youre really worried about cancer or your health in general, these are the things to concentrate on. It means, essentially, doing what your mom told you to do: eat more fruits and vegetables and consume anything else in moderation.
Yet only one in five American children eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day, the governments dietary recommendation. We get a third of the fiber were supposed to. At the same time, Americans are taking in more calories than ever and have made themselves the fattest western nation on earth, causing an estimated 300,000 premature deaths each year.
Environmental groups have effectively scared many Americans away from fresh produce. The Alar campaign in 1989 remains the most prominent. Orchestrated by the Natural Resources Defense Council, it had 60 Minutes declaring the apple growth regulator Alar, "The most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply." Actress Meryl Streep appeared before Congress to blubber and demand, speaking of course on behalf of all mothers, that chemicals like Alar be yanked. It was.
Yet the Alar campaign was only one of many environmentalist-media joint efforts. "Do I Dare to Eat a Strawberry?" ran the title of a New York Times article last fall, promoting a paper by the Environmental Working Group.
These scares have doubtless impacted buying habits but have had even greater impact on regulatory agencies — especially the EPA, which feels a need to react to each new horror story.
Dr. Bruce Ames
"If you dont get enough vitamin C," he told me, "its like stepping unprotected in front of an X-ray machine. And were spending no money trying to get the poor to eat better diets and were taking on average of $2,000 from each family for EPA regulations. I think we just have our priorities completely out of whack."
That goes for both personal priorities and national ones.
On a personal level, we contentedly stuff our faces with Ho-Hos, Twinkies, and Big Macs. And while getting significantly more fiber is as easy as buying whole wheat bread instead of white, Americans overwhelmingly choose white bread, safe in the belief that the government is regulating away any and all types of cancer.
Nationally, its time for the feds to end what could be called the rat race — the assumption that says that anytime a synthetic chemical in a huge dose (typically several hundred thousand times what a human would take in) promotes cancer in a laboratory rodent, we must race to regulate or ban it.
Its also time to get rid of the notion (common among environmentalists) that whatever nature makes is harmless while anything developed in a lab is harmful. As the NRC report — and a mass of other evidence — shows, a carcinogen is a carcinogen. If its present in significant enough amounts to invite regulation, then the regulations should apply whether the source was Ma Nature or Dow Chemical.
"This suggests we need to look at both natural and synthetic pesticides, compare them, and come up with better tests," says Fran Smith, president of the Washington-based Consumer Alert.
Indeed, the committee said more naturally occurring chemicals should be individually tested for their ability to cause cancer, starting with those that are found in the highest concentrations in commonly consumed foods.
But dont count the environmentalist groups out yet. Over the last few years, as their case against synthetic chemicals causing cancer has grown weaker and weaker, theyve started blaming them for other problems. These include immune dysfunction and declining sperm counts. If its true that you just cant keep a good man down, that goes double for a bad environmentalist.