Exposing America's toxic burden

Pesticides Action Network's report says Americans carry high pesticide levels in their bodies

By Kushal Pal Singh Yadav
Published: Wednesday 30 June 2004

-- (Credit: EMKAY)People in the us, especially children, women and Mexican Americans, carry dangerously high levels of pesticides in their bodies, according to a recent study. Many of these toxic chemicals have serious health effects: cancers, infertility and birth defects. The study also zeroes in on companies responsible for the population's high rate of exposure and suggests remedial steps.

The report " Chemical Trespass: Pesticides in Our Bodies and Corporate Accountability", released in May 2004, has been prepared by the Pesticides Action Network North America (panna), an international non-governmental organisation that advocates ecologically sound pest management. panna analysed pesticide-related data released in January 2003 by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc) in its Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. The cdc tested 9,282 people for 116 chemicals, including 34 pesticides. The panna report "takes a closer look at what the cdc data tells us about our 'pesticide body burden'". It uses the data to identify sections of population that carry the highest levels of pesticides in their bodies and to determine if the exposure is within limits prescribed "safe" by us authorities.

"In many cases, pesticide exposure levels indicated by cdc's body burden data were well above officially permitted thresholds," reveals the report. "The data represents a failure of our approach to how we protect people from toxic pesticides," says Kristin Schafer, the study's lead author and pan's programme coordinator. Of the 13 pesticides in the evaluated set for which safe limits have been established, two -- chlorpyrifos and methyl parathion -- exceeded the thresholds dramatically. The transgression was the maximum in the former, an insecticide commonly known by its commercial name Dursban. Its average level for different age groups was 3-4.6 times higher than its acceptable level for chronic exposure to vulnerable populations -- women, children and the elderly.

The study claims that children, women and Mexican Americans carry the highest levels of pesticides in their bodies. Children are exposed to the highest levels of nerve-damaging organophosphorous (op) pesticides. The exposure of the average 6-11 year-old to chlorpyrifos, an op pesticide, is four times more than the safe level for long-term exposure, set by the us Environmental Protection Agency. Women were found to carry "significantly" higher levels of three pesticides from the highly persistent organochlorine group. Organochlorines can seriously disrupt brain development of infants, triggering learning disabilities.
Pesticide Trespass Index The report also pinpoints companies responsible for high pesticide levels in people's bodies. It does so by developing a Pesticide Trespass Index (pti), "a quantitative measure (a number between 0 and 1) of the fraction of chemical trespass attributable to a specific manufacturer for a pesticide, or group of pesticides, found in a population." Dow AgroSciences, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical Corporation, is the primary manufacturer of chlorpyrifos. So, "using conservative market share estimates, Dow's pti for chlorpyrifos can be calculated to be 0.8." In other words, "at least 80 per cent of the population's chlorpyrifos body burden is the responsibility of Dow Chemical Corporation," says the report. "Dow developed, and was the first to commercialise the pesticide for a wide range of agricultural, residential and non-residential uses, and remains the predominant producer of technical grade chlorpyrifos to this day. The company continues to produce and promote the pesticide in the us and internationally, despite strong evidence of significant public health impacts," it adds.

Reacting to the report, a Dow spokesperson admitted that the company was the largest manufacturer of chlorpyrifos in the us but argued that the pesticide leaves the body quickly without causing any harm.

panna has urged the us Senate to ratify the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (pops). It has demanded funding for the ongoing chemical body burden data collection and a "thorough, independent and unbiased investigation into corporate responsibility and liability for pesticide body burdens." "We have relied on public health and safety regulatory systems to protect us from these highly hazardous chemicals, and cdc's pesticide body burden data show us that these systems have failed. The time has come to take dramatic steps towards a healthier system of agriculture and pest management," the report concludes.

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