EPA Must Decide Whether Food Quality Act Protects Kids or Bugs

By Michael Fumento

Copyright April 28, 1998 Michael Fumento

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Picture the robot from Lost in Space frantically waving its arms and crying, "Warning! Warning!" Whenever you hear of a unanimous vote in both the House and Senate on something other than a mere resolution, we should have that robot around. Such votes usually mean there was little or no debate, and a lot of people voted for something they didn’t really understand.

So it was with the unanimous vote for the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA), mandating that the EPA set new standards for pesticide use, with special emphasis on children.

It seemed to Congress like a good idea at the time; after all, who’s against food quality and safe kids? But the actual wording presents a nightmare for American farmers, consumers, and especially consumers’ children.

Among the problems of the FQPA:

It doesn’t weigh risks against benefits, be they health or cost. Such an approach would be disastrous if applied generally in our lives. Consider the recent report finding that over 100,000 Americans die each year from proper use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Yet nobody has called for eliminating drugs. Why? Because these same drugs are clearly saving far more lives than they take and also improving the quality of lives.

But FQPA allows no such rationality much to the delight of some environmentalist activist groups. One, the D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG), has demanded an immediate ban on all household use of organophosphates. Yet organophosphates comprise one of the most common and useful classes of insecticide because while effective on a huge range of bugs, nothing short of massive (read: suicidal) ingestion can kill even a small child.

Currently with most pesticides, we determine allowable exposure on foods by taking the minimum amount that caused harm in lab animals and divide it by ten to allow for differences between animals and humans. (Although humans may as easily be more resistant to the chemical as less.) We divide this by another ten to allow for more susceptible humans. But the FQPA allows for another division by ten ostensibly to protect children. Environmental activists want this broadly invoked.

But children are already accounted for in the first division by ten in that some of the testing involves infant and fetal animals, and in the second division by ten in that they fall into the "more susceptible human" category.

It allows evaluating combined or concurrent exposures of different pesticides. If the chemicals have similar effects, this makes sense. But this allows groups like the EWG to issue warnings and demand protection from nonsensical combined hypothetical exposures. If you’re going to measure combinations, you’ve got to measure them, not conceive possible worst-case scenarios.

The EPA will issue new regulations in the next few months, and may grant the environmental extremists their every wish. But first the Agency must consider the downside of any ban, any restriction, any decrease in the amount of exposure allowed. It must consider that:

If there were better alternatives, farmers would be using them. Prevent them from using any one insecticide and you force them to switch to an inferior one that requires more chemical per acre, increasing the chance of run-off into water supplies. For some crops, there are currently no replacements. We could also be replacing extremely well-studied insecticides (organophosphates have been used safely for 30 years) with those about which we know much less. Some crops may no longer be price competitive. This means we will be bringing in food from other countries where regulations on insecticides and food handling are much less stringent. Produce prices will rise in the store. Already too many American children seem to think fruits and vegetables are what our ancestors or dinosaurs ate. If two Big Macs can still be purchased for $1.99 and the cost of apples and broccoli go up, parents will buy even less produce and their children will eat even less.

Finally, asthma deaths have increased by an appalling six times in recent years mostly among inner-city blacks. The main cause? Cockroaches, or more specifically — as the EPA Office of Air Quality might call it — cockroach tailpipe emissions. Replacing the best household bug killers with inferior ones is breathtakingly cruel.

In recent years, environmentalists have popularized the term "environmental racism," meaning minorities sometimes seem to get the short end of the pollution stick. Condemning them to ever-growing rates of asthma may well qualify.

The FQPA was a good idea gone bad. How bad now depends on how the EPA decides to implement it. The Agency could decide in favor of consumers, farmers, children who need fruits and vegetables and children who need to breathe. Or it can cast its lot with environmental activists who seize any opportunity to reduce the use of any pesticide.

We know which side the bugs are rooting for.

Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on pesticides and on the media.